Infomotions, Inc.Down the Ravine / Murfree, Mary Noailles, 1850-1922



Author: Murfree, Mary Noailles, 1850-1922
Title: Down the Ravine
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Title: Down the Ravine

Author: Charles Egbert Craddock (real name: Murfree, Mary Noailles)

Release Date: March, 2004  [EBook #5306]
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DOWN THE RAVINE BY CHARLES EGBERT CRADDOCK.




CHAPTER I.

The new moon, a gleaming scimitar, cleft the gauzy mists above a
rugged spur of the Cumberland Mountains.  The sky, still crimson and
amber, stretched vast and lonely above the vast and lonely
landscape.  A fox was barking in the laurel.

This was an imprudent proceeding on the part of the fox, considering
the value of his head-gear.  A young mountaineer down the ravine was
reminded, by the sharp, abrupt sound, of a premium offered by the
State of Tennessee for the scalp and ears of the pestiferous red
fox.

All unconscious of the legislation of extermination, the animal sped
nimbly along the ledge of a cliff, becoming visible from the ravine
below, a tawny streak against the gray rock.  Swift though he was, a
jet of red light flashing out in the dusk was yet swifter.  The
echoing crags clamored with the report of a rifle.  The tawny streak
was suddenly still.  Three boys appeared in the depths of the ravine
and looked up.

"Thar now!  Ye can't git him off'n that thar ledge, Birt," said Tim
Griggs.  "The contrairy beastis couldn't hev fund a more ill-
convenient spot ter die of he hed sarched the mounting."

"I ain't goin' ter leave him thar, though," stoutly declared the boy
who still held the rifle.  "That thar fox's scalp an' his two ears
air wuth one whole dollar."

Tim remonstrated.  "Look-a-hyar, Birt; ef ye try ter climb up this
hyar bluff, ye'll git yer neck bruk, sure."

Birt Dicey looked up critically.  It was a rugged ascent of forty
feet or more to the narrow ledge where the red fox lay.  Although
the face of the cliff was jagged, the rock greatly splintered and
fissured, with many ledges, and here and there a tuft of weeds or a
stunted bush growing in a niche, it was very steep, and would afford
precarious foothold.  The sunset was fading.  The uncertain light
would multiply the dangers of the attempt.  But to leave a dollar
lying there on the fox's head, that the wolf and the buzzard might
dine expensively to-morrow!

"An' me so tried for money!" he exclaimed, thinking aloud.

Nate Griggs, who had not before spoken, gave a sudden laugh,--a dry,
jeering laugh.

"Ef all the foxes on the mounting war ter hold a pertracted meet'n,
jes' ter pleasure you-uns, thar wouldn't be enough scalps an' ears
'mongst 'em ter make up the money ye hanker fur ter buy a horse."

To buy a horse was the height of Birt's ambition.  His mother was a
widow; and as an instance of the fact that misfortunes seldom come
singly, the horse on which the family depended to till their scanty
acres died shortly after his owner.  And so, whenever the spring
opened and the ploughs all over the countryside were starting, their
one chance to cultivate a crop was to hire a mule from their nearest
neighbor, the tanner.  Birt was the eldest son, and his mother had
only his work to offer in payment.  The proposition always took the
tanner in what he called a "jubious time."  Spring is the season for
stripping the trees of their bark, which is richer in tannin when
the sap flows most freely, and the mule was needed to haul up the
piles of bark from out the depths of the woods to the tanyard.
Then, too, Jubal Perkins had his own crops to put in.  As he often
remarked in the course of the negotiation, "I don't eat tan bark--
nor yit raw hides."  Although the mule was a multifarious animal,
and ploughed and worked in the bark-mill, and hauled from the woods,
and went long journeys in the wagon or under the saddle, he was not
ubiquitous, and it was impossible for him to be in the several
places in which he was urgently needed at the same time.  Therefore,
to hire him out on these terms seemed hardly an advantage to his
master.  Nevertheless, this bargain was annually struck.  The
poverty-stricken widow always congratulated herself upon its
conclusion, and it never occurred to her that the amount of work
that Birt did in the tanyard was a disproportionately large return
for the few days that the tanner's mule ploughed their little
fields.

Birt, however, was beginning to see that a boy to drive that mule
around the bark-mill was as essential as the mule himself.  As
Providence had failed to furnish the tanner with a son for this
purpose--his family consisting of several small daughters--Birt
supplied a long-felt want.

The boy appreciated that his simple mother was over-reached, yet he
could not see that she could do otherwise.  He sighed for
independence, for a larger opportunity.  As he drove the mule round
the limited circuit, his mind was far away.  He anxiously canvassed
the future.  He cherished fiery, ambitious schemes,--often scorched,
poor fellow, by their futility.  With his time thus mortgaged, he
thought his help to his mother was far less than it might be.  But
until he could have a horse of his own, there was no hope--no
progress.  And for this he planned, and dreamed, and saved.

Partly these considerations, partly the love of adventure, and
partly the jeer in Nate's laugh determined him not to relinquish the
price set upon the fox's head.  He took off his coat and flung it on
the ground beside his rifle.  Then he began to clamber up the cliff.

The two brothers, their hands in the pockets of their brown jeans
trousers, stood watching his ascent.  Nate had sandy hair, small
gray eyes, set much too close together, and a sharp, pale, freckled
face.  Tim seemed only a mild repetition of him, as if Nature had
tried to illustrate what Nate would be with a better temper and less
sly intelligence.

Birt was climbing slowly.  It was a difficult matter.  Here was a
crevice that would hardly admit his eager fingers, and again a
projection so narrow that it seemed to grudge him foothold.  Some of
the ledges, however, were wider, and occasionally a dwarfed
huckleberry bush, nourished in a fissure, lifted him up like a
helping hand.  He quaked as he heard the roots strain and creak, for
he was a pretty heavy fellow for sixteen years of age.  They did not
give way, however, and up and up he went, every moment increasing
the depth below him and the danger.  His breath was short; his
strength flagged, he slipped more than once, giving himself a great
fright; and when he reached the ledge where the dead fox lay, he
thought, "The varmint don't wuth it."

Nevertheless he whooped out his triumph to Nate and Tim in a
stentorian halloo, for they had already started homeward, and
presently their voices died in the distance.  Birt faced about and
sat down on the ledge to rest, his feet dangling over the depths
beneath.

It was a lonely spot, walled in by the mountains, and frequented
only by the deer that were wont to come to lick salt from the briny
margin of a great salt spring far down the ravine.  Their hoofs had
worn a deep excavation around it in the countless years and
generations that they had herded here.  The "lick," as such places
are called in Tennessee, was nearly two acres in extent, and in the
centre of the depression the brackish water stood to the depth of
six feet or more.  Birt looked down at it, thinking of the old times
when, according to tradition, it was the stamping ground of buffalo
as well as deer.  The dusk deepened.  The shadows were skulking in
and out of the wild ravine as the wind rose and fell.  They took to
his fancy the form of herds of the banished bison, revisiting in
this impalpable guise the sylvan shades where they are but a memory
now.

Presently he began the rugged descent, considerably hampered by the
fox, which he carried by the tail.  He stopped to rest whenever he
found a ledge that would serve as a seat.  Looking up, high above
the jagged summit of the cliff that sharply serrated the zenith, he
saw the earliest star, glorious in the crimson and amber sky.
Below, a point of silver light quivered, reflected in the crimson
and amber waters of the "lick."  The fire-flies were flickering
among the ferns; he saw about him their errant gleam.  The shadowy
herds trooped down the mountain side.

Now and then his weight uprooted a bush in his hands, and the clods
fell.  He missed his footing as he neared the base, and came down
with a thump.  It was a gravelly spot where he had fallen, and he
saw in a moment that it was the summer-dried channel of a mountain
rill.  As he pulled himself up on one elbow, he suddenly paused with
dilated eyes.  The evening light fell upon a burnished glimmer;--a
bit of stone--was it stone?--shining with a metallic lustre.

He looked at it for a moment, his eyes glowing in the contemplation
of a splendid possibility.

What were those old stories that his father used to tell of the gold
excitement in Tennessee in 1831, when the rich earth flung largess
from its hidden wealth along the romantic banks of Coca Creek!  Gold
had been found in Tennessee--why not here?  And once--why not again?

The idea so possessed him that while he was skinning the fox his
sharp knife almost sacrificed one of the TWO ears imperatively
required by the statute, in order that the wily hunter may not be
tempted to present one ear at a time, thus multiplying red foxes and
premiums therefor like Falstaff's "rogues in buckram."

He took his way homeward through the darkening woods, carrying the
pelt in his hand.  It was not long before he could hear the dogs
barking, and as he came suddenly upon a little clearing in the midst
of the dense, encompassing wilderness, he saw them all trooping down
from the unenclosed passage between the two log-rooms which
constituted the house.  An old hound had half climbed the fence, but
as he laid his fore-paw on the topmost rail, his deep-mouthed bay
was hushed,--he was recognizing the approaching step of his master.
The yellow curs were still insisting upon a marauder theory.  One of
them barked defiance as he thrust his head between the rails of the
fence.  There was another head thrust through too, about on a level
with Towser's, but it was not a dog's head.  As Birt caught a
glimpse of it, he called out hastily, "Stand back thar, Tennessee!"
And then it was lost to view, for at the sound of his voice all the
dogs came huddling over the bars, shrilly yelping a tumultuous
welcome.

When Birt had vaulted over the fence, the little object withdrew its
head from between the rails and came trotting along beside him,
holding up its hand to clasp his.

His mother, standing in the passage, her tall, thin figure distinct
in the firelight that came flickering out through the open door,
soliloquized querulously:  -

"Ef that thar child don't quit that fool way o' stickin' her head a-
twixt the rails ter watch fur her brother, she'll git cotched thar
some day like a peeg in a pen, an' git her neck bruk."

Birt overheard her.  "Tennessee air too peart ter git herself hurt,"
he said, a trifle ashamed of his ready championship of his little
sister, as a big rough boy is apt to be of gentler emotions.

If ever infancy can be deemed uncouth, she was an uncouth little
atom of humanity.  Her blue checked homespun dress, graced with big
horn buttons, descended almost to her feet.  Her straight, awkwardly
cropped hair was of a nondescript shade pleasantly called "tow."  As
she came into the light of the fire, she lifted wide black eyes
deprecatingly to her mother.

"She ain't pretty, I know, but she air powerful peart," Birt used to
say so often that the phrase became a formula with him.

If she were "powerful peart," it was a fact readily apparent only to
him, for she was a silent child, with the single marked
characteristic of great affection for her eldest brother and a
singular pertinacity in following him about.

"I dunno 'bout Tennie's peartness," his mother sarcastically
rejoined.  "'Pears ter me like the chile hain't never hed good
sense; afore she could walk she'd crawl along the floor arter ye,
an' holler like a squeech-owEL ef ye went off an' lef' her.  An' ye
air plumb teched in the head too, Birt, ter set sech store by
Tennie.  I look ter see her killed, or stunted, some day, in them
travels o' hern."

For when Birt Dicey went "yerrands" on the mule through the woods to
the Settlement, Tennessee often rode on the pommel of his saddle.
She followed in the furrow when he ploughed.  She was as familiar an
object at the tanyard as the bark-mill itself.  When he wielded the
axe, she perched on one end of the woodpile.  But so far, she had
passed safely through her varied adventures, and gratifying
evidences of her growth were registered on the door.  "Stand back
thar, Tennessee!" in a loud, boyish halloo, was a command when
danger was ahead, which she obeyed with the readiness of a veteran.

Sometimes, however, this incongruous companionship became irksome to
him.  Her trusting, insistent affection made her a clog upon him,
and he grew impatient of it.

Ah, little Sister! he learned its value one day.

The great wood fire was all aflare in the deep chimney-place.
Savory odors came from the gridiron and the skillet and the hoe, on
the live coals drawn out on the broad hearth.  The tow-headed
children grew noisy as they assembled around the bare pine table,
and began to clash their knives and forks.

Birt, unmindful, crouched by the hearth, silently turning his
precious specimens about, that he might examine them by the
firelight.  Tennessee, her chuffy hand on his shoulder, for she
could reach it as he knelt, held her head close to his, and looked
at them too with wide black eyes.  His mother placed the supper on
the table, and twice she called to him to come, but he did not hear.
She turned and looked down at him, then broke out sharply in
indignant surprise.

"Air ye bereft o' reason, Birt Dicey!  Ye set thar nosin' a handful
o' rocks ez ef they war fitten ter eat!  An' now look at the boy--a
stuffin' 'em in his pockets ter sag 'em down and tear 'em out fur me
ter sew in ag'in.  Waal, waal!  Sol'mon say ef ye spare the rod ye
spile the child--mos' ennybody could hev fund that out from thar own
'sperience; but the wisest man that ever lived lef' no receipt how
ter keep a boy's pockets whole in his breeches."



CHAPTER II.

Birt Dicey lay awake deep into the night, pondering and planning.
But despite this unwonted vigil the old bark-mill was early astir,
and he went alertly about his work.  He felt eager, strong, capable.
The spirit of progress was upon him.

The tanyard lay in the midst of a forest so dense that, except at
the verge of the clearing, it showed hardly a trace of its gradual
despoliation by the industry that nestled in its heart like a worm
in the bud.  There were many stumps about the margin of the woods,
the felled trees, stripped of their bark, often lying among them
still, for the supply of timber exceeded the need.  In penetrating
the wilderness you might mark, too, here and there, a vacant space,
where the chestnut-oak, prized for its tannin, had once grown on the
slope.

A little log house was in the midst of the clearing.  It had,
properly speaking, only one room, but there was a shed-room
attached, for the purpose of storage, and also a large open shed at
one side.  The rail fence inclosed the space of an acre, perhaps,
which was covered with spent bark.  Across the pits planks were
laid, with heavy stones upon them to hold them in place.  A rude
roof sheltered the bark-mill from the weather, and there was the
patient mule, with Birt and a whip to make sure that he did not fall
into reflective pauses according to his meditative wont.  And there,
too, was Tennessee, perched on the lower edge of a great pile of
bark, and gravely watching Birt.

He deprecated the attention she attracted.  He was sometimes ashamed
to have the persistent little sister seen following at his heels
like a midday shadow.  He could not know that the men who stopped
and spoke to him and to her, and laughed at the infirmities of the
infant tongue when she replied unintelligibly, thought better of him
for his manifestation of strong fraternal affection.  They said to
each other that he was a "peart boy an' powerful good ter the
t'other chill'en, an' holped the fambly along ez well ez a man--
better'n thar dad ever done;" for Birt's father had been
characterized always as "slack-twisted an' onlucky."

The shadows dwindled on the tan.  The winds had furled their wings.
White clouds rose, dazzling, opaque, up to the blue zenith.  The
querulous cicada complained in the laurel.  Birt heard the call of a
jay from the woods.  And then, as he once more urged the old mule
on, the busy bark-mill kept up such a whir that he could hear
nothing else.  He was not aware of an approach till the new-comer
was close upon him; in fact, the first he knew of Nate Griggs's
proximity was the sight of him.  Nate was glancing about with his
usual air of questioning disparagement, and cracking a long lash at
the spent bark on the ground.

"Hello, Nate!" Birt cried out, eagerly.  "I'm powerful glad ye
happened ter kem hyar, fur I hev a word ter say ter ye."

"I dunno ez I'm minded ter bide," Nate said cavalierly.  "I hates to
waste time an' burn daylight a-jowin'."

He was still cracking his lash at the ground.  There was a sudden,
half-articulate remonstrance.

Birt, who had turned away to the bark-mill, whirled back in a rising
passion.

"Did ye hit Tennessee?" he asked, with a dangerous light in his
eyes.

"No--I never!" Nate protested.  "I hain't seen her till this minute.
She war standin' a-hint ye."

"Waal, ye skeered her, then," said Birt, hardly appeased.  "Quit
snappin' that lash.  'Pears-like ter me ez ye makes yerself powerful
free round this hyar tanyard."

"Tennie air a-growin' wonderful fast," the sly Nathan remarked
pleasantly.

Birt softened instantly.  "She air a haffen inch higher 'n she war
las' March, 'cordin' ter the mark on the door," he declared,
pridefully.  "She ain't pretty, I know, but she air powerful peart."

"What war the word ez ye war layin' off ter say ter me?" Nate asked,
curiosity vividly expressed in his face.

Birt leaned back against the pile of bark and hesitated.  Last night
he had thought Nate the most desirable person to whom he could
confide his secret whose aid he could secure.  There were many
circumstances that made this seem wise.  But when the disclosure was
imminent, something in those small, bead-like eyes, unpleasantly
close together, something in the expression of the thin, pale face,
something in Nate's voice and manner repelled confidence.

"Nate," said Birt, at last, speaking with that subacute conviction,
so strong yet so ill-defined, which vividly warns the ill-judged and
yet cannot stop the tongue constrained by its own folly, "what d'ye
s'pose I fund in the woods yestiddy?"

The two small eyes, set close together, seemed merged in one, so
concentrated was their gaze.  Again their expression struck Birt's
attention.  He hesitated once more.  "Ef I tell ye, will ye promise
never ter tell enny livin' human critter?"

"I hope I may drap stone dead ef I ever tell!" Nate exclaimed.

"I fund a strange metal in the woods yestiddy.  What d'ye s'pose 't
war?"

Nate shook his head.  His breath was quick and he could not control
the keen anxiety in his face.  A strong flush rose to the roots of
his sandy hair, his lips quivered, and his small eyes glittered with
greedy expectation.  His tongue refused to frame a word.

"GOLD!" cried Birt, triumphantly.

"Whar be it?" exclaimed Nate.  He was about to start in full run for
the spot.

"I ain't agoin' ter tell ye, without we-uns kin strike a trade."

"Waal," said Nate, with difficulty repressing his impatience, "what
air you-uns aimin' ter do?"

"Ye knows ez I hev ter bide hyar with the bark-mill mos'ly, jes'
now," said Birt, beginning to expound the series of ideas which he
had carefully worked out in his midnight vigil, "'kase they hev got
ter hev a heap o' tan ter fill them thar vats ag'in.  Ef I war ter
leave an' go a-gold huntin', the men on the mounting would find out
what I war arter, an' they'd come a-grabblin' thar too, an' mebbe
git it all, 'kase I dunno how much or how leetle thar be.  I wants
ter make sure of enough ter buy a horse, or a mule, or su'thin', ef
I kin, 'fore I tells ennybody else.  An' I 'lowed ez ye an' me would
go pardners.  Ye'd take my place hyar at the tanyard one day, whilst
I dug, an' I'd bide in the tanyard nex' day.  An' we would divide
fair an' even all we fund."

Nate did not reply.  He was absorbed in a project that had come into
his head as his friend talked, and the two dissimilar trains of
thought combined in a mental mosaic that would have amazed Birt
Dicey.

"Ye see," Birt presently continued, "I dunno when I kin git shet o'
the tanyard this year.  Old Jube Perkins 'lows ez he air mighty busy
'bout'n them hides an' sech, an' he wants me ter holp around
ginerally.  He say ef I do mo' work'n I owes him, he'll make that
straight with my mother.  An' he declares fur true ef I don't holp
him at this junctry, when he needs me, he won't hire his mule to my
mother nex' spring; an' ye know it won't do fur we-uns ter resk the
corn-crap an' gyarden truck with sech a pack o' chill'n ter vittle
ez we-uns hev got at our house."

Nate deduced an unexpected conclusion.  "Ye oughter gin me more'n
haffen the make," he said.  "'Kase ef 'twarn't fur me, ye couldn't
git none.  An' ef ye don't say two thurds, I'll tell every critter
on the mounting an' they'll be grabblin' in yer gold mine d'rec'ly."

"Ye dunno whar it is," said Birt, quietly.

If a sudden jet from the cold mountain torrent, that rioted through
the wilderness down the ravine hard by, had been dashed into Nate's
thin, sharp face, he could not have cooled more abruptly.  The
change almost took his breath away.

"I don't mean THAT, nuther," he gasped with politic penitence, "kase
I hev promised not ter tell.  I dunno whether I kin holp nohow.  I
hev got ter do my sheer o' work at home; we ain't through pullin'
fodder off'n our late corn yit."

Birt looked at him in silent surprise.

Nate was older than his friend by several years.  He was of an
unruly and insubordinate temper, and did as little work as he
pleased at home.  He often remarked that he would like to see who
could make him do what he had no mind to do.

"Mebbe old Jube wouldn't want me round 'bout," he suggested.

"Waal," said Birt, eager again to detail his plans, "he 'lowed when
I axed him this mornin' ez he'd be willin' ef I could trade with
another boy ter take my place wunst in a while."

Nate affected to meditate on this view of the question.  "But it
will be toler'ble fur away fur me ter go prowlin' in the woods, a-
huntin' fur gold, an' our fodder jes' a-sufferin' ter be pulled.  Ef
the spot air fur off, I can't come an' I won't, not fur haffen the
make."

"'T ain't fur off at all--scant haffen mile," replied unwary Birt,
anxious to convince.  "It air jes' yander nigh that thar salt lick
down the ravine.  I marks the spot by a bowlder--biggest bowlder I
ever see--on the slope o' the mounting."

The instant this revelation passed his lips, regret seized him.
"But ye ain't ter go thar 'thout me, ye onderstand, till we begins
our work."

"I ain't wantin' ter go," Nate protested.  "I ain't sati'fied in my
mind whether I'll ondertake ter holp or no.  That pullin' fodder ez
I hev got ter do sets mighty heavy on my stomach."

"Tim an' yer dad ALWAYS pulls the fodder an' sech--I knows ez that
air a true word," said Birt, bluntly.  "An' I can't git away from
the tanyard at all ef ye won't holp me, 'kase old Jube 'lowed he
wouldn't let me swop with a smaller boy ter work hyar; an' all them
my size, an' bigger, air made ter work with thar dads, 'ceptin' you-
uns."

Nate heard, but he hardly looked as if he did, so busily absorbed
was he in fitting this fragment of fact into his mental mosaic.  It
had begun to assume the proportions of a distinct design.

He suddenly asked a question of apparent irrelevancy.

"This hyar land down the ravine don't b'long ter yer folkses--who do
it b'long ter?"

"Don't b'long ter nobody, ye weasel!" Birt retorted, in rising
wrath.  "D'ye s'pose I'd be a-stealin' of gold off'n somebody else's
land?"

Nate's sly, thin face lighted up wonderfully.  He seemed in a fever
of haste to terminate the conference and get away.  He agreed to his
friend's proposition and promised to be at the bark-mill bright and
early in the morning.  As he trudged off, Birt Dicey stood watching
the receding figure.  His eyes were perplexed, his mind full of
anxious foreboding.  He hardly knew what he feared.  He had only a
vague sense of mischief in the air, as slight but as unmistakable as
the harbinger of storm on a sunshiny summer day.

"I wisht I hedn't tole him nuthin'," he said, as he wended his way
home that night.  "Ef my mother hed knowed bout'n it all, I wouldn't
hev been 'lowed ter tell him.  She DEspises the very sight o' this
hyar Nate Griggs--an' yit she say she dunno why."

After supper he sat gloomy and taciturn in the uninclosed passage
between the two rooms, watching alternately the fire-flies, as they
instarred the dark woods with ever-shifting gold sparks, and the
broad, pale flashes of heat lightning which from time to time
illumined the horizon.  There was no motion in the heavy black
foliage, but it was filled with the shrill droning of the summer
insects, and high in the branches a screech-owl pierced the air with
its keen, quavering scream.

"Tennessee!" exclaimed Birt, as the unwelcome sound fell upon his
ear--"Tennessee! run an' put the shovel in the fire!"

Whether the shovel, becoming hot among the live coals, burned the
owl that was high in the tree-top outside, according to the
countryside superstition, or whether by a singular coincidence, he
discovered that he had business elsewhere, he was soon gone, and the
night was left to the chorusing katydids and tree-toads and to the
weird, fitful illuminations of the noiseless heat lightning.

Birt Dicey rose suddenly and walked away silently into the dense,
dark woods.

"Stop, Tennessee! ye can't go too!" exclaimed Mrs. Dicey, appearing
in the doorway just in time to intercept the juvenile excursionist.
"Ketch her, Rufus!  Ef she wouldn't hev followed Birt right off in
the pitch dark!  She ain't afeared o' nothin' when Birt is thar.
Git that pomegranate she hed an' gin it ter her ter keep her from
hollerin', Rufe; I hed a sight ruther hear the squeech-owEL."

Tennessee, overpowered by disappointment, sobbed herself to sleep
upon the floor, and then ensued an interval of quiet.  Rufe, a
towheaded boy of ten, dressed in an unbleached cotton shirt and
blue-checked homespun trousers, concluded that this moment was the
accepted time to count the balls in his brother's shot-pouch.  This
he proceeded to do, with the aid of the sullen glare from the embers
within and the fluctuating gleams of the lightning without.  There
was no pretense of utility in Rufe's performance; only the love of
handling lead could explain it.

"Ye hed better mind," his mother admonished him.  "Birt war powerful
tried the t'other day ter think what hed gone with his bullets.
He'll nose ye out afore long."

"They hev got sech a fool way o' slippin' through the chinks in the
floor," said the boy in exasperation.  "I never seen the beat!  An'
thar's no gittin' them out, nuther.  I snaked under the house
yestiddy an' sarched, an' sarched!--an' I never fund but two.  An'
Towse, he dragged hisself under thar, too--jes' a-growlin' an' a-
snappin'.  I thought fur sartin every minit he'd bite my foot off."

He resumed his self-imposed task of counting the rifle balls, and
now and then a sharp click told that another was consigned to that
limbo guarded by Towse.  Mrs. Dicey stood in silence for a time,
gazing upon the unutterably gloomy forest, the distant, throbbing
stars, and the broad, wan flashes at long intervals gleaming through
the sky.

"It puts me in a mighty tucker ter hev yer brother a-settin' out
through the woods this hyar way, an' a-leavin' of we-uns hyar, all
by ourselves sech a dark night.  I'm always afeared thar mought be a
bar a-prowlin' round.  An' the cornfield air close ter the house,
too."

"Pete Thompson--him ez war yander ter the tanyard day 'fore yestiddy
with his dad," said the boy, "he tole it ter me ez how he seen a bar
las' Wednesday a-climbin' over the fence ter thar cornfield, with a
haffen dozen roastin'-ears under his arm an' a watermillion on his
head.  But WAR it a haffen dozen?  I furgits now ef Pete said it war
a haffen dozen or nine ears of corn the bar hed;" and he paused to
reflect in the midst of his important occupation.

"I'll be bound Pete never stopped ter count 'em," said Mrs. Dicey.
"Pick that chile up an' come in.  I'm goin' ter bar up the door."

Birt Dicey plodded away through the deep woods and the dense
darkness down the ravine.  Although he could not now distinguish one
stone from another, he had an uncontrollable impulse to visit again
the treasure he had discovered.  The murmur of the gently bubbling
water warned him of the proximity of the deep salt spring almost at
the base of the mountain, and, guiding himself partly by the sound,
he made his way along the slope to the great bowlder beneath the
cliffs that served to mark the spot.  As he laid his hand on the
bowlder, he experienced a wonderful exhilaration of spirit.  Once
more he canvassed his scheme.  This was the one great opportunity of
his restricted life.  Visions of future possibilities were opening
wide their fascinating vistas.  He might make enough to buy a horse,
and this expressed his idea of wealth.  "But ef I live ter git a
cent out'n it," he said to himself, "I'll take the very fust money I
kin call my own an' buy Tennessee a chany cup an' sarcer, an' a
string o' blue beads an' a caliky coat--ef I die fur it."

His pleased reverie was broken by a sudden discovery.  He was not
standing among stones about the great bowlder; no--his foot had sunk
deep in the sand!  He stooped down in the darkness and felt about
him.  The spot was not now as he had left it yesterday afternoon.
He was sure of this, even before a fleet, wan flash of the heat
lightning showed him at his feet the unmistakable signs of a recent
excavation.  It was not deep, it was not broad; but it was fresh and
it betrayed a prying hand.  Again the heat lightning illumined the
wide, vague sky.  He saw the solemn dark forests; he saw the steely
glimmer of the lick; the distant mountains flickered against the
pallid horizon; and once more--densest gloom.



CHAPTER III.

It was Nate who had been here,--Birt felt sure of that; Nate, who
had promised he would not come.

Convinced that his friend was playing a false part, Birt went at
once to the bark-mill in the morning, confident that he would not
find Nate at work in the tanyard according to their agreement.

It was later than usual, and Jubal Perkins swore at Birt for his
tardiness.  He hardly heard; and as the old bark-mill ground and
ground the bark, and the mule jogged around and around, and the hot
sun shone, and the voices of the men handling the hides at the
tanpit were loud on the air, all his thoughts were of the cool,
dark, sequestered ravine, holding in its cloven heart the secret he
had discovered.

Rufus happened to come to the tanyard today.  Birt seized the
opportunity.

"Rufe," he said, "ye see I can't git away from the mill, 'kase I'm
'bleeged ter stay hyar whilst the old mule grinds.  But ef ye'll go
over yander ter Nate Griggs's house an' tell him ter come over hyar,
bein' ez I want to see him partic'lar, I'll fix ye a squir'l-trap
before long ez the peartest old Bushy-tail on the mounting ain't got
the gumption ter git out'n.  An' let me know ef Nate ain't thar."

Rufe was disposed to parley.  He stood first on one foot, then on
the other.  He cast calculating eyes at the bark-mill and out upon
the deep forest.  The exact date on which this promise was to be
fulfilled had to be fixed before he announced his willingness to set
out.

Ten to one, he would have gone without the bribe, had none been
suggested, for he loved the woods better than the woodpile, and a
five-mile tramp through its tangles wearied his bones not so much as
picking up a single basketful of chips.  Some boys' bones are
constituted thus, strange as it may seem.

So he went his way in his somewhat eccentric gait, compounded of a
hop, and a skip, and a dawdle.  He had made about half a mile when
the path curved to the mountain's brink.  He paused and parted the
glossy leaves of the dense laurel that he might look out over the
precipice at the distant heights.  How blue--how softly blue they
were!--the endless ranges about the horizon.  What a golden haze
melted on those nearer at hand, bravely green in the sunshine!  From
among the beetling crags, the first red leaf was whirling away
against the azure sky.  Even a buzzard had its picturesque aspects,
circling high above the mountains in its strong, majestic flight.
To breathe the balsamic, sunlit air was luxury, happiness; it was a
wonder that Rufe got on as fast as he did.  How fragrant and cool
and dark was the shadowy valley!  A silver cloud lay deep in the
waters of the "lick."  Why Rufe made up his mind to go down there,
he could hardly have said--sheer curiosity, perhaps.  He knew he had
plenty of time to get to Nate's house and back before dark.  People
who sent Rufe on errands usually reckoned for two hours' waste in
each direction.  He had no idea of descending the cliffs as Birt had
done.  He stolidly retraced his way until he was nearly home; then
scrambling down rocky slopes he came presently upon a deer-path.
All at once, he noticed the footprint of a man in a dank, marshy
spot.  He stopped and looked hard at it, for he had naturally
supposed this path was used only by the woodland gentry.

"Some deer-hunter, I reckon," he said.  And so he went on.

With his characteristic curiosity, he peered all around the "lick"
when he was at last there.  He even applied his tongue, calf-like,
to the briny earth; it did not taste so salty as he had expected.
As he rolled over luxuriously on his back among the fragrant summer
weeds, he caught sight of something in the branches of an oak tree.
He sat up and stared.  It looked like a rude platform.  After a
moment, he divined that it was the remnant of a scaffold from which
some early settler of Tennessee had been wont to fire upon the deer
or the buffalo at the "lick," below.  Such relics, some of them a
century old, are to be seen to this day in sequestered nooks of the
Cumberland Mountains.  Rufe had heard of these old scaffolds, but he
had never known of the existence of this one down by the "lick."  He
sprang up, a flush of excitement contending with the dirt on his
countenance; he set his squirrel teeth resolutely together; he
applied his sturdy fingers and his nimble legs to the bark of the
tree, and up he went like a cat.

He climbed to the lower branches easily enough, but he caused much
commotion and swaying among them as he struggled through the
foliage.  An owl, with great remonstrant eyes, suddenly looked out
of a hollow, higher still, with an inarticulate mutter of mingled
reproach, and warning, and anxiety.  Rufe settled himself on the
platform, his bare feet dangling about jocosely.  Then, beating his
hands on either thigh to mark the time he sang in a loud, shrill
soprano, prone now and then to be flat, and yet, impartially, prone
now and then to be sharp:  -

   Thar war two sun-dogs in the red day-dawn,
      An' the wind war laid--'t war prime fur game.
   I went ter the woods betimes that morn,
      An' tuk my flint-lock, "Nancy," by name;
        An' thar I see, in the crotch of a tree,
        A great big catamount grinnin' at me.
        A-kee! he! he! An' a-ho! ho! he!
        A pop-eyed catamount laffin' at me!

And, as Rufe sang, the anger and remonstrance in the owl's demeanor
increased every moment.  For the owl was a vocalist, too!

   Bein' made game of by a brute beastis,
      War su'thin' I could in no ways allow.
   I jes' spoke up, for my dander hed riz,
      "Cat--take in the slack o' yer jaw!"
   He bowed his back--Nance sighted him gran',
   Then the blamed old gal jes' flashed in the pan!
   A-kee! he! he! An' a-ho! ho! he!
   With a outraged catamount rebukin' of me!

As Rufe finished this with a mighty CRESCENDO, he was obliged to
pause for breath.  He stared about, gaspily.  The afternoon was
waning.  The mountains close at hand were a darker green.  The
distant ranges had assumed a rosy amethystine tint, like nothing
earthly--like the mountains of a dream, perhaps.  The buzzard had
alighted in the top of a tree not far down the slope, a tree long
ago lightning-scathed, but still rising, gaunt and scarred, above
all the forest, and stretching dead stark arms to heaven.  Somehow
Rufe did not like the looks of it.  He was aware of a revulsion of
feeling, of the ebbing away of his merry spirit before he saw more.

As he tried to sing:  -

   I war the mightiest hunter that ever ye see
   Till that thar catamount tuk arter me! -

his tongue clove suddenly to the roof of his mouth.

He could see something under that tree which no one else could see,
not even from the summit of the crags, for the tree was beyond a
projecting slope, and out of the range of vision thence.

Rufe could not make out distinctly what the object was, but it was
evidently foreign to the place.  He possessed the universal human
weakness of regarding everything with a personal application.  It
now seemed strange to him that he should have come here at all;
stranger still, that he should have mounted this queer relic of days
so long gone by, and thus discovered that peculiar object under the
dead tree.  He began to think he had been led here for a purpose.
Now Rufe was not so good a boy as to be on the continual lookout for
rewards of merit.  On the contrary, the day of reckoning meant with
him the day of punishment.  He had heard recounted an unpleasant
superstition that when the red sunsets were flaming round the
western mountains, and the valleys were dark and drear, and the
abysses and gorges gloomed full of witches and weird spirits, Satan
himself might be descried, walking the crags, and spitting fire, and
deporting himself generally in such a manner as to cause great
apprehension to a small person who could remember so many sins as
Rufe could.  His sins! they trooped up before his mental vision now,
and in a dense convocation crowded the encompassing wilderness.

Rufe felt that he must not leave this matter in uncertainty.  He
must know whether that strange object under the tree could be
intended as a warning to him to cease in time his evil ways--
tormenting Towse, pulling Tennessee's hair, shirking the woodpile,
and squandering Birt's rifle balls.  He even feared this might be a
notification that the hour of retribution had already come!

He scuttled off the platform, and began to swing himself from bough
to bough.  He was nervous and less expert than when he had climbed
up the tree.  He lost his grip once, and crashed from one branch to
another, scratching himself handsomely in the operation.  The owl,
emboldened by his retreat, flew awkwardly down upon the scaffold,
and perched there, its head turned askew, and its great, round eyes
fixed solemnly upon him.

Suddenly a wild hoot of derision rent the air; the echoes answered,
and all the ravine was filled with the jeering clamor.

"The wust luck in the worl'!" plained poor Rufe, as the ill-omened
cry rose again and again.  "'Tain't goin' ter s'prise me none now,
ef I gits my neck bruk along o' this resky foolishness in this
cur'ous place whar owELS watch from the lookout ez dead men hev
lef'."

He came down unhurt, however.  Then he sidled about a great many
times through "the laurel," for he could not muster courage for a
direct approach to the strange object he had descried.  The owl
still watched him, and bobbed its head and hooted after him.  When
he drew near the lightning-scathed tree, he paused rooted to the
spot, gazing in astonishment, his hat on the back of his tow head,
his eyes opened wide, one finger inserted in his mouth in silent
deprecation.

For there stood a man dressed in black, and with a dark straw hat on
his head.  He had gray whiskers, and gleaming spectacles of a mildly
surprised expression.  He smiled kindly when he saw Rufe.
Incongruously enough, he had a hammer in his hand.  He was going
down the ravine, tapping the rocks with it.  And Rufe thought he
looked for all the world like some over-grown, demented woodpecker.



CHAPTER IV.

As Rufe still stood staring, the old gentleman held out his hand
with a cordial gesture.

"Come here, my little man!" he said in a kind voice.

Rufe hesitated.  Then he was seized by sudden distrust.  Who was
this stranger? and why did he call, "Come here!"

Perhaps the fears already uppermost in Rufe's mind influenced his
hasty conclusion.  He cast a horrified glance upon the old gentleman
in black, a garb of suspicious color to the little mountaineer, who
had never seen men clad in aught but the brown jeans habitually worn
by the hunters of the range.  He remembered, too, the words of an
old song that chronicled how alluring were the invitations of Satan,
and with a frenzied cry he fled frantically through the laurel.

Away and away he dashed, up steep ascents, down sharp declivities,
falling twice or thrice in his haste, but hurting his clothes more
than himself.

It was not long before he was in sight of home, and Towse met him at
the fence.  The feeling between these two was often the reverse of
cordial, and as Rufe climbed down from rail to rail, his sullen
"Lemme 'lone, now!" was answered by sundry snaps at his heels and a
low growl.  Not that Towse would really have harmed him--fealty to
the family forbade that; but in defense of his ears and tail he
thought it best to keep fierce possibilities in Rufe's
contemplation.

Rufe sat down on the floor of the uninclosed passage between the two
rooms, his legs dangling over the sparse sprouts of chickweed and
clumps of mullein that grew just beneath, for there were no steps,
and Towse bounded up and sat upright close beside him.  And as he
sought to lean on Towse, the dog sought to lean on him.

They both looked out meditatively at the dense and sombre
wilderness, upon which this little clearing and humble log-cabin
were but meagre suggestions of that strong, full-pulsed humanity
that has elsewhere subdued nature, and achieved progress, and
preempted perfection.

Towse soon shut his eyes, and presently he was nodding.  Presumably
he dreamed, for once he roused himself to snap at a fly, when there
was no fly.  Rufe, however, was wide awake, and busily canvassing
how to account to Birt for the lack of a message from Nate Griggs,
for he would not confess how untrustworthy he had proved himself.
As he reflected upon this perplexity, he leaned his throbbing head
on his hand, and his attitude expressed a downcast spirit.

This chanced to strike his mother's attention as she came to the
door.  She paused and looked keenly at him.

"Them hoss apples ag'in!" she exclaimed, with the voice of
accusation.  She had no idea of youthful dejection disconnected with
the colic.

Rufe was roused to defend himself.  "Hain't teched 'em, now!" he
cried, acrimoniously.

"Waal, sometimes ye air sorter loose-jointed in yer jaw, an' ain't
partic'lar what ye say," rejoined his mother, politely.  "I'll waste
a leetle yerb-tea on ye, ennyhow."

She started back into the room, and Rufe rose at once.  This cruelty
should not be practiced upon him, whatever might betide him at the
tanyard.  He set out at a brisk pace.  He had no mind to be long
alone in the woods since his strange adventure down the ravine, or
he might have hid in the underbrush, as he had often done, until
other matters usurped his mother's medicinal intentions.

When Rufe reached the tanyard, Birt was still at work.  He turned
and looked eagerly at the juvenile ambassador.

"Did Nate gin ye a word fur me?" he called sonorously, above the
clamor of the noisy bark-mill.

"He say he'll be hyar ter-morrer by sun-up!" piped out Rufe, in a
blatant treble.

A lie seemed less reprehensible when he was obliged to labor so
conscientiously to make it heard.

And then compunction seized him.  He sat down by Tennessee on a pile
of bark, and took off his old wool hat to mop the cold perspiration
that had started on his head and face.  He felt sick, and sad, and
extremely wicked,--a sorry contrast to Birt, who was so honest and
reliable and, as his mother always said, "ez stiddy ez the
mounting."  Birt was beginning to unharness the mule, for the day's
work was at an end.

The dusk had deepened to darkness.  The woods were full of gloom.  A
timorous star palpitated in the sky.  In the sudden stillness when
the bark-mill ceased its whir, the mountain torrent hard by lifted a
mystic chant.  The drone of the katydid vibrated in the laurel, and
the shrill-voiced cricket chirped.  Two of the men were in the shed
examining a green hide by the light of a perforated tin lantern,
that seemed to spill the rays in glinting white rills.  As they
flickered across the pile of bark where Rufe and Tennessee were
sitting, he noticed how alert Birt looked, how bright his eyes were.

For Birt's hopes were suddenly renewed.  He thought that some
mischance had detained Nate to-day, and that he would come to-morrow
to work at the bark-mill.

The boy's blood tingled at the prospect of being free to seek for
treasure down the ravine.  He began to feel that he had been too
quick to distrust his friend.  Perhaps the stipulation that Nate
should not go to the ravine until the work commenced was more than
he ought to have asked.  And perhaps, too, the trespasser was not
Nate!  The traces of shallow delving might have been left by another
hand.  Birt paused reflectively in unharnessing the mule.  He stood
with the gear in one hand, serious and anxious, in view of the
possibility that this discovery was not his alone.

Then he strove to cast aside the thought.  He said to himself that
he had been hasty in concluding that the slight excavation argued
human presence in that lonely spot; a rock dislodged and rolling
heavily down the gorge might have thus scraped into the sand and
gravel; or perhaps some burrowing animal, prospecting for winter
quarters, had begun to dig a hole under the bowlder.

He was perplexed, despite his plausible reasoning, and he continued
silent and preoccupied when he lifted Tennessee to his shoulder and
trudged off homeward, with Rufe at his heels, and the small boy's
conscience following sturdily in the rear.

That sternly accusing conscience!  Rufe was dismayed, when he sat
with the other laughing children about the table, to know that his
soul was not merry.  Sometimes a sombre shadow fell upon his face,
and once Birt asked him what was the matter.  And though he laughed
more than ever, he felt it was very hard to be gay without the
subtle essence of mirth.  That lie!--it seemed to grow; before
supper was over it was as big as the warping-bars, and when they all
sat in a semicircle in the open passage, Rufe felt that his
conscience was the most prominent member of the party.  The young
moon sank; the night waxed darker still; the woods murmured
mysteriously.  And he was glad enough at last to be sent to bed,
where after so long a time sleep found him.

The morrow came in a cloud.  The light lacked the sunshine.  The
listless air lacked the wind.  Still and sombre, the woods touched
the murky, motionless sky.  All the universe seemed to hold a sullen
pause.  Time was afoot--it always is--but Birt might not know how it
sped; no shadows on the spent tan this dark day!  Over his shoulder
he was forever glancing, hoping that Nate would presently appear
from the woods.  He saw only the mists lurking in the laurel; they
had autumnal presage and a chill presence.  He buttoned his coat
about him, and the old mule sneezed as he jogged round the bark-
mill.

Jubal Perkins and a crony stood smoking much of the time to-day in
the door of the house, looking idly out upon the brown stretch of
spent bark, and the gray, weather-beaten sheds, and the dun sky, and
the shadowy, mist-veiled woods.  The tanner was a tall, muscular
man, clad in brown jeans, and with boots of a fair grade of leather
drawn high over his trousers.  As he often remarked, "The tanyard
owes ME good foot-gear--ef the rest o' the mounting hev ter go
barefoot."  The expression of his face was somewhat masked by a
heavy grizzled beard, but from beneath the wide brim of his hat his
eyes peered out with a jocose twinkle.  His mouth seemed chiefly
useful as a receptacle for his pipe-stem, for he spoke through his
nose.  His voice was strident on the air, since he included in the
conversation a workman in the shed, who was scraping with a two-
handled knife a hide spread on a wooden horse.  This man, whose name
was Andrew Byers, glanced up now and then, elevating a pair of
shaggy eyebrows, and settled the affairs of the nation with
diligence and despatch, little hindered by his labors or the
distance.

Birt took no heed of the loud drawling talk.  In moody silence he
drove the mule around and around the bark-mill.  The patient old
animal, being in no danger of losing his way, closed his eyes
drowsily as he trudged, making the best of it.

"I'll git ez mild-mannered an' meek-hearted ez this hyar old
beastis, some day, ef things keep on ez disapp'intin' ez they hev
been lately," thought Birt, miserably.  "They do say ez even he used
ter be a turrible kicker."

Noon came and went, and still the mists hung in the forest closely
engirdling the little clearing.  The roofs glistened with moisture,
and the eaves dripped.  A crow was cawing somewhere.  Birt had
paused to let the mule rest, and the raucous sound caused him to
turn his head.  His heart gave a bound when he saw that on the other
side of the fence the underbrush was astir along the path which
wound through the woods to the tanyard.  Somebody was coming; he
hoped even yet that it might be Nate.  He eagerly watched the
rustling boughs.  The crow had flown, but he heard as he waited a
faint "caw! caw!" in the misty distance.  Whoever the newcomer might
be, he certainly loitered.  At last the leaves parted, and revealed-
-Rufe.

Birt's first sensation was renewed disappointment.  Then he was
disposed to investigate the mystery of Nate's non-appearance.

"Hello, Rufe!" he called out, as soon as the small boy was inside
the tanyard, "be you-uns SURE ez Nate said he'd come over by sun-
up?"

Rufe halted and gazed about him, endeavoring to conjure an
expression of surprise into his freckled face.  He even opened his
mouth to exhibit astonishment--exhibiting chiefly that equivocal
tongue, and a large assortment of jagged squirrel teeth.

"Hain't Nate come yit?" he ventured.

The tanner suddenly put into the conversation.

"War it Nate Griggs ez ye war aimin' ter trade with ter take yer
place wunst in a while in the tanyard?"

Birt assented.  "An' he 'lowed he'd be hyar ter-day by sun-up.  Rufe
brung that word from him yestiddy."

Rufe's conscience had given him a recess, during which he had
consumed several horse-apples in considerable complacence and a
total disregard of "yerb tea."  He had climbed a tree, and sampled a
green persimmon, and he endured with fortitude the pucker in his
mouth, since it enabled him to make such faces at Towse as caused
the dog to snap and growl in a frenzy of surprised indignation.  He
had fashioned a corn-stalk fiddle--that instrument so dear to rural
children!--and he had been sawing away on it to his own satisfaction
and Tennessee's unbounded admiration for the last half-hour.  He had
forgotten that pursuing conscience till it seized upon him again in
the tanyard.

"Oh, Birt," he quavered out, suddenly, "I hain't laid eyes on Nate."

Birt exclaimed indignantly, and Jubal Perkins laughed.

"I seen sech a cur'ous lookin' man, down in the ravine by the lick,
ez it sot me all catawampus!" continued Rufe.

As he told of his defection, and the falsehood with which he had
accounted for it, Jubal Perkins came to a sudden decision.

"Git on that thar mule, Birt, an' ride over ter Nate's, an' find out
what ails him, ef so be ye hanker ter know.  I don't want nobody
workin' in this hyar tanyard ez looks ez mournful ez ye do--like ez
ef ye hed been buried an' dug up.  But hurry back, 'kase there ain't
enough bark ground yit, an' I hev got other turns o' work I want ye
ter do besides 'fore dark."

"War that Satan?" asked Rufe abruptly.

"Whar?" exclaimed Birt, startled, and glancing hastily over his
shoulder.

"Down yander by the lick," plained Rufe.

"Naw!" said Birt, scornfully, "an' nuthin' like Satan, I'll be
bound!"

He was, however, uneasy to hear of any man down the ravine in the
neighborhood of his hidden treasure, but he could not now question
Rufe, for Jube Perkins, with mock severity, was taking the small boy
to account.

Byers was looking on, the knife idle in his hands, and his lips
distended with a wide grin in the anticipation of getting some fun
out of Rufe.

"Look-a-hyar, bub," said Jubal Perkins, with both hands in his
pockets and glaring down solemnly at Rufe; "ef ever I ketches ye
goin' of yerrands no better'n that ag'in, I'm a-goin' ter--TAN that
thar hide o' yourn."

Rufe gazed up deprecatingly, his eyes widening at the prospect.
Byers broke into a horse laugh.

"We've been wantin' some leetle varmints fur tanning ennyhow," he
said.  "Ye'll feel mighty queer when ye stand out thar on the spent
tan, with jes' yer meat on yer bones, an 'look up an' see yer skin
a-hangin' alongside o' the t'other calves, an' sech--that ye will!"

"An' all the mounting folks will be remarkin' on it, too," said
Perkins.  Which no doubt they would have done with a lively
interest.

"I reckon," said Byers, looking speculatively at Rufe, "ez't would
take a right smart time fur ye ter git tough enough ter go 'bout in
respect'ble society ag'in.  'T would hurt ye mightily, I'm thinkin'.
Ef I war you-uns, I'd be powerful partic'lar ter keep inside o' sech
an accommodatin'-lookin' little hide ez yourn be fur tanning."

Rufe's countenance was distorted.  He seemed about to tune up and
whimper.  "An' ef I war you-uns, Andy Byers, I'd find su'thin'
better ter do'n ter bait an' badger a critter the size o' Rufe!"
exclaimed Birt angrily.

"That thar boy's 'bout right, too!" said the man who had hitherto
been standing silent in the door.

"Waal, leave Rufe be, Jubal!" said Byers, laughing.  "YE started the
fun."

"Leave him be, yerself," retorted the tanner.

When Birt mounted the mule, and rode out of the yard, he glanced
back and saw that Rufe had approached the shed; judging by his
gestures, he was asking a variety of questions touching the art of
tanning, to which Byers amicably responded.

The mists were shifting as Birt went on and on.  He heard the acorns
dropping from the chestnut-oaks--sign that the wind was awake in the
woods.  Like a glittering, polished blade, at last a slanting
sunbeam fell.  It split the gloom, and a radiant afternoon seemed to
emerge.  The moist leaves shone; far down the aisles of the woods
the fugitive mists, in elusive dryadic suggestions, chased each
other into the distance.  Although the song-birds were all silent,
there was a chirping somewhere--cheerful sound!  He had almost
reached his destination when a sudden rustling in the undergrowth by
the roadside caused him to turn and glance back.

Two or three shoats lifted their heads and were gazing at him with
surprise, and a certain disfavor, as if they did not quite like his
looks.  A bevy of barefooted, tow-headed children were making mud
pies in a marshy dip close by.  An ancient hound, that had renounced
the chase and assumed in his old age the office of tutor, seemed to
preside with dignity and judgment.  He, too, had descried the
approach of the stranger.  He growled, but made no other
demonstration.

"Whar's Nate?" Birt called out, for these were the children of
Nate's eldest brother.

For a moment there was no reply.  Then the smallest of the small
boys shrilly piped out, "He hev gone away!--him an' gran'dad's
claybank mare."

Another unexpected development!  "When will he come back?"

"Ain't goin' ter come back fur two weeks."

"Whar 'bouts hev he gone?" asked Birt amazed.

"Dunno," responded the same little fellow.

"When did he set out?"

There was a meditative pause.  Then ensued a jumbled bickering.  The
small boys, the shoats, and the hound seemed to consult together in
the endeavor to distinguish "day 'fore yestiddy" from "las' week."
The united intellect of the party was inadequate.

"Dunno!" the mite of a spokesman at last admitted.

Birt rode on rapidly once more, leaving this choice syndicate
settling down again to the mud pies.

The woods gave way presently and revealed, close to a precipice,
Nate's home.  The log house with its chimney of clay and sticks, the
barn of ruder guise, the fodder-stack, the ash-hopper, and the rail
fence were all imposed in high relief against the crimson west and
the purpling ranges in the distance.  The little cabin was quite
alone in the world.  No other house, no field, no clearing, was
visible in all the vast expanse of mountains and valleys which it
overlooked.  The great panorama of nature seemed to be unrolled for
it only.  The seasons passed in review before it.  The moon rose,
waxing or waning, as if for its behoof.  The sun conserved for it a
splendid state.

But the skies above it had sterner moods,--sometimes lightnings
veined the familiar clouds; winds rioted about it; the thunder spoke
close at hand.  And then it was that Mrs. Griggs lamented her
husband's course in "raisin' the house hyar so nigh the bluffs ez ef
it war an' aigle's nest," and forgot that she had ever accounted
herself "sifflicated" when distant from the airy cliffs.

She stood in the doorway now, her arms akimbo--an attitude that
makes a woman of a certain stamp seem more masterful than a man.
Her grizzled locks were ornamented by a cotton cap with a wide and
impressive ruffle, which, swaying and nodding, served to emphasize
her remarks.  She was conferring in a loud drawl with her husband,
who had let down the bars to admit his horse, laden with a newly
killed deer.  Her manner would seem to imply that she, and not he,
had slain the animal.

"Toler'ble fat," she commented with grave self-complacence.  "He
'minds me sorter o' that thar tremenjious buck we hed las'
September.  HE war the fattes' buck I ever see.  Take off his hide
right straight."

The big cap-ruffle flapped didactically.

"Lor'-a--massy, woman!" vociferated the testy old man; "ain't I a-
goin' ter?  Ter hear ye a-jowin', a-body would think I had never
shot nothin' likelier'n a yaller-hammer sence I been born.  S'pos'n
ye jes' takes ter goin' a-huntin', an' skinnin' deer, an' cuttin'
wood, an' doin' my work ginerally.  Pears-like ye think ye knows mo'
'bout'n my work'n I does.  An' I'll bide hyar at the house."

Mrs. Griggs nodded her head capably, in nowise dismayed.  "I dunno
but that plan would work mighty well," she said.

This conjugal colloquy terminated as she glanced up and saw Birt.

"Why, thar's young Dicey a-hint ye.  Howdy Birt!  'Light an' hitch!"

"Naw'm," rejoined Birt, as he rode into the enclosure and close up
to the doorstep.  "I hain't got time ter 'light."  Then
precipitately opening the subject of his mission.  "I kem over hyar
ter see Nate.  Whar hev he disappeared ter?"

"Waal, now, that's jes' what I'd like ter know," she replied, her
face eloquent with baffled curiosity.  "He jes' borried his dad's
claybank mare, an' sot out, an' never 'lowed whar he war bound fur.
Nate hev turned twenty-one year old," she continued, "an' he 'lows
he air a man growed, an' obligated ter obey nobody but hisself.
From the headin' way that he kerries on hyar, a-body would s'pose he
air older 'n the Cumberland Mountings!  But he hev turned twenty-
one--that's a fac'--an' he voted at the las' election."

(With how much discretion it need not now be inquired.)

"I knows that air true," said Birt, who had wistfully admired this
feat of his senior.

"Waal--Nate don't set much store by votin'," rejoined Mrs. Griggs.
"Nate, he say, the greatest privilege his kentry kin confer on him
is ter make it capital punishment fur wimmen ter ax him questions!--
Which I hev done," she admitted stoutly.

And the ruffle on her cap did not deny it.

"Nate air twenty-one," she reiterated.  "An' I s'pose he 'lows ez I
hev no call nowadays ter be his mother."

"Hain't ye got no guess whar he be gone?" asked Birt, dismayed by
this strange new complication.

"Waal, I hev been studyin' it out ez Nate mought hev rid ter Parch
Corn, whar his great-uncle, Joshua Peters, lives--him that merried
my aunt, Melissy Baker, ez war a widder then, though born a Scruggs.
An' then, ag'in, Nate MOUGHT hev tuk it inter his head ter go ter
the Cross-roads, a-courtin' a gal thar ez he hev been talkin' about
powerful, lately.  But they tells me," Mrs. Griggs expostulated, as
it were, "that them gals at the Cross-roads is in no way desirable,-
-specially this hyar Elviry Mills, ez mighty nigh all the boys on
the mounting hev los' thar wits about,--what little wits ez they
ever hed ter lose, I mean ter say.  But Nate thinks he hev got a
right ter a ch'ice, bein' ez he air turned twenty-one."

"Did he say when he 'lowed ter come back?" Birt asked.

"'Bout two or three weeks Nate laid off ter be away; but whar he hev
gone, an' what's his yerrand, he let no human know," returned Mrs.
Griggs.  "I hev been powerful aggervated 'bout this caper o' Nate's.
I ain't afeard he'll git hisself hurt no ways whilst he be gone, for
Nate is mighty apt ter take keer o' Nate."  She nodded her head
convincingly, and the great ruffle on her cap shook in
corroboration.  "But I hain't never hed the right medjure o' respec'
out'n Nate, an' his dad hain't, nuther."

Birt listened vaguely to this account of his friend's filial
shortcomings, his absent eyes fixed upon the wide landscape, and his
mind busy with the anxious problems of Nate's broken promises.

And the big red ball of the setting sun seemed at last to roll off
the plane of the horizon, and it disappeared amidst the fiery
emblazonment of clouds with which it had enriched the west.  But all
the world was not so splendid; midway below the dark purple summits
a dun, opaque vapor asserted itself in dreary, aerial suspension.
Beneath it he could see a file of cows, homeward bound, along the
road that encircled the mountain's base.  He heard them low, and
this reminded him that night was near, for all that the zenith was
azure, and for all that the west was aglow.  And he remembered he
had a good many odd jobs to do before dark.  And so he turned his
face homeward.



CHAPTER V.

Birt had always been held in high esteem by the men at the tanyard.
Suddenly, however, the feeling toward him cooled.  He remembered
afterward, although at the time he was too absorbed to fully
appreciate it, that this change began one day shortly after he had
learned of Nate's departure.  As he went mechanically about his
work, he was pondering futilely upon his friend's mysterious
journey, and his tantalizing hopes lying untried in the depths of
the ravine.  He hardly noticed the conversation of the men until
something was said that touched upon the wish nearest his heart.

"I war studyin' 'bout lettin' Birt hev a day off," said the tanner.
"An' ye'll bide hyar."

"Naw, Jube--naw!" Andy Byers replied with stalwart independence to
his employer.  "I hev laid off ter attend.  Ef ye want ennybody ter
bide with the tanyard, an' keer fur this hyar pit, ye kin do it
yerse'f, or else Birt kin.  _I_ hev laid off ter attend."

Andy Byers was a man of moods.  His shaggy eyebrows to-day
overshadowed eyes sombre and austere.  He seemed, if possible, a
little slower than was his wont.  He bore himself with a sour
solemnity, and he was at once irritable and dejected.

"Shucks, Andy! ye knows ye ain't no kin sca'cely ter the old woman;
ye couldn't count out how ye air kin ter her ter save yer life.
Now, I'M obleeged ter attend."

It so happened that the tanner's great-aunt was distantly related to
Andy Byers.  Being ill, and an extremely old woman, she was supposed
to be lying at the point of death, and her kindred had been summoned
to hear her last words.

"I hed 'lowed ter gin Birt a day off, 'kase I hev got ter hev the
mule in the wagon, an' he can't grind bark.  I PROMISED Birt a day
off," the tanner continued.

"That thar's twixt ye an' Birt.  I hain't got no call ter meddle,"
said the obdurate Byers.  "Ye kin bide with the tanyard an' finish
this job yerse'f, of so minded.  I'm goin' ter attend."

"I reckon half the kentry-side will be thar, an' _I_ wants ter see
the folks," said Jubal Perkins, cheerfully.

"Then Birt will hev ter bide with the tanyard, an' finish this job.
It don't lie with me ter gin him a day off.  I don't keer ef he
never gits a day off," said Byers.

This was an unnecessarily unkind speech, and Birt's anger flamed
out.

"Ef we-uns war of a size, Andy Byers," he said, hotly, "I'd make ye
divide work a leetle more ekal than ye does."

Andy Byers dropped the hide in his hands, and looked steadily across
the pit at Birt, as if he were taking the boy's measure.

"Ye mean ter say ef ye hed the bone an' muscle ye'd knock me down,
do ye?" he sneered.  "Waal, I'll take the will fur the deed.  I'll
hold the grudge agin ye, jes' the same."

They were all three busied about the pit.  The hides had been taken
out, and stratified anew, with layers of fresh tan, reversing the
original order,--those that had been at the bottom now being placed
at the top.  The operation was almost complete before Jubal Perkins
received the news of his relative's precarious condition.  He had no
doubt that Birt was able to finish it properly, and the boy's
conscientious habit of doing his best served to make the tanner's
mind quite easy.  As to the day off, he was glad to have that
question settled by a quarrel between his employees, thus relieving
him of responsibility.

Birt's wrath was always evanescent, and he was sorry a moment
afterward for what he had said.  Andy Byers exchanged no more words
with him, and skillfully combined a curt and crusty manner toward
him with an aspect of contemplative dreariness.  Occasionally, as
they paused to rest, Byers would sigh deeply.

"A mighty good old woman, Mrs. Price war."  He spoke as if she were
already dead.  "A mighty good old woman, though small-sized."

"A little of her went a long way.  She war eighty-four year old, an'
kep' a sharp tongue in her head ter the las'," rejoined the tanner,
adopting in turn the past tense.

Rufe listened with startled interest.  Now and then he cocked up his
speculative eyes, and gazed fixedly into the preternaturally solemn
face of Byers, who reiterated, "A good old woman, though small-
sized."

With this unaccustomed absorption Rufe's accomplishment of getting
under-foot became pronounced.  The tanner jostled him more than
once, Birt stumbled against his toes, and Byers, suddenly turning,
ran quite over him.  Rufe had not far to fall, but Byers was a tall
man.  His arms swayed like the sails of a windmill in the effort to
recover his balance.  He was in danger of toppling into the pit, and
in fact only caught himself on his knees at its verge.

"Ye torment!" he roared angrily, as he struggled to his feet.
"G'way from hyar, or I'll skeer ye out'n yer wits!"

The small boy ruefully gathered his members together, and after the
men had started on their journey he sat down on a pile of wood hard
by to give Birt his opinion of Andy Byers.

"He air a toler'ble mean man, ain't he, Birt?"

But Birt said he had no mind to talk about Andy Byers.

"SKEER ME!" exclaimed Rufe, doughtily.  "It takes a heap ter skeer
ME!"

He got up presently, and going into the shed began to examine the
tools of the trade which were lying there.  He had the two-handled
knife, with which he was about to try his skill on a hide that was
stretched over the beam of the wooden horse, when Birt glanced up
and came hastily to the rescue.  Rufe was disposed to further
investigate the appliances of the tanyard left defenseless at his
mercy, but at last Birt prevailed on him to go home and play with
Tennessee, and was glad enough to see his tow-head, with his old hat
perched precariously on it, bobbing up and down among the low
bushes, as he wended his way along the path through the woods.

The hides had all been replaced between layers of fresh tan before
the men left, and Birt had only to fill up the space above with a
thicker layer, ten or fifteen inches deep, and put the boards
securely across the top of the pit, with heavy stones upon them to
weight them down.  But this kept him busy all the rest of the
afternoon.

Rufe was pretty busy too.  When he came in sight of home Tennessee
was the first object visible in the open passage.  The sunshine
slanted through it under the dusky roof, and the shadows of the
chestnut-oak, hard by, dappled the floor.  Lying there was an old
Mexican saddle, for which there was no use since the horse had died.
Tennessee was mounted upon it, the reins in her hands, the headstall
and bit poised on the peaked pommel.  She jounced back and forth,
and the skirts of the saddle flapped and the stirrups clanked on the
floor, and the absorbed eyes of the little mountaineer were fixed on
space.

Away and away she cantered on some splendid imaginary palfrey,
through scenes where conjecture fails to follow her:  a land,
doubtless, where all the winds blow fair, and sparkling waters run,
and jeopardy delights, and fancy's license prevails--all very
different, you may be sure, from the facts, an old saddle on a
puncheon floor, and a little black-eyed mountaineer.

How far Tennessee journeyed, and how long she was gone, it is
impossible to say.  She halted suddenly when her attention was
attracted to a phenomenon within one of the rooms.

The door was ajar and the solitary Rufe was visible in the dusky
vista.  He stood before a large wooden chest.  He had lifted the
lid, and kept it up by resting it upon his head, bent forward for
the purpose, while he rummaged the contents with vandal hands.

Tennessee stared at him, with indignant surprise gathering in her
widening eyes.

Now that chest contained, besides a meagre store of quilts and
comforts, her own and her mother's clothes, the fewer garments of
the boys of the family being alternately suspended on the clothes-
line and their own frames.  She resented the sacrilege of Rufe's
invasion of that chest.  She turned on the saddle and looked around
with an air of appeal.  Her mother, however, was down the hill
beside the spring, busy boiling soap, and quite out of hearing.
Tennessee gazed vaguely for a moment at the great kettle with the
red and yellow flames curling around it, and her mother's figure
hovering over it.  Then she looked back at Rufe.

He continued industriously churning up the contents of the chest,
the lid still poised upon that head that served so many other useful
purposes--for the gymnastic exhibition involved in standing on it;
for his extraordinary mental processes; for a lodgment for his old
wool hat, and a field for his crop of flaxen hair.

All the instinct of the proprietor was roused within Tennessee.  She
found her voice, a hoarse, infantile wheeze.

"Tum out'n chist!" she exclaimed, gutturally.  "Tum out'n chist!"

Rufe turned his tow-head slowly, that he might not disturb the poise
of the lid of the chest resting upon it.  He fixed a solemn stare on
Tennessee, and drawing one hand from the depths of the chest, he
silently shook his fist.  And then he resumed his researches.

Tennessee, alarmed by this impressive demonstration, dismounted
hastily from the saddle as soon as his threatening gaze was
withdrawn.  She tangled her feet in the stirrups and her hands in
the reins, and lost more time in scrambling off the floor of the
passage and down upon the ground; but at last she was fairly on her
way to the spring to convey an account to her mother of the outlaw
in the chest.  In fact, she was not far from the scene of the soap-
boiling when she heard her name shouted in stentorian tones, and
pausing to look back, she saw Rufe gleefully capering about in the
passage, the headstall on his own head, the bit hanging on his
breast, and the reins dangling at his heels.

Now this beguilement the little girl could never withstand, and
indeed few people ever had the opportunity to drive so frisky and
high-spirited a horse as Rufe was when he consented to assume the
bit and bridle.  He was rarely so accommodating, as he preferred the
role of driver, with what he called "a pop-lashEE!" at command.  She
forgot her tell-tale mission.  She turned with a gurgle of delight
and began to toddle up the hill again.  And presently Mrs. Dicey,
glancing toward the house, saw them playing together in great amity,
and rejoiced that they gave her so little trouble.

They were still at it when Birt came home, but then Tennessee was
tired of driving, and he let her go with him to the wood-pile and
sit on a log while he swung the axe.  No one took special notice of
Rufe's movements in the interval before supper.  He disappeared for
a time, but when the circle gathered around the table he was in his
place and by no means a non-combatant in the general onslaught on
the corn-dodgers.  Afterward he came out in the passage and sat
quietly among the others.

The freshened air was fragrant, and how the crickets were chirring
in the grass!  On every spear the dew was a-glimmer, for a lustrous
moon shone from the sky.  Somehow, despite the long roads of light
that this splendid pioneer blazed out in the wilderness, it seemed
only to reveal the loneliness of the forests, and to give new
meaning to the solemnity of the shadows.  The heart was astir with
some responsive thrill that jarred vaguely, and was pain.  Yet the
night had its melancholy fascination, and they were all awake later
than usual.  When at last the doors were barred, and the house grew
still, and even the vigilant Towse had ceased to bay and had lodged
himself under the floor of the passage, the moon still shone in
isolated effulgence, for the faint stars faded before it.

The knowledge that in all the vast stretch of mountain fastnesses he
was the only human creature that beheld it, as it majestically
crossed the meridian, gave Andy Byers a forlorn feeling, while
tramping along homeward.  He had made the journey afoot, some eight
miles down the valley, and was later far in returning than others
who had heeded the summons of the sick woman.  For she still lay in
the same critical condition, and his mind was full of dismal
forebodings as he toiled along the road on the mountain's brow.  The
dark woods were veined with shimmering silver.  The mists, hovering
here and there, showed now a blue and now an amber gleam as the
moon's rays conjured them.  On one side of the road an oak tree had
been uptorn in a wind-storm; the roots, carrying a great mass of
earth with them, were thrust high in the air, while the bole and
leafless branches lay prone along the ground.  This served as a
break in the density of the forest, and the white moonshine
possessed the vacant space.

As he glanced in that direction his heart gave a great bound, then
seemed suddenly to stand still.  There, close to the verge of the
road, as if she had stepped aside to let him pass, was the figure of
an old woman--a small-sized woman, tremulous and bent.  It looked
like old Mrs. Price!  As he paused amazed, with starting eyes and
failing limbs, the wind fluttered her shawl and her ample sunbonnet.
This shielded her face and he could not see her features.  Her head
seemed to turn toward him.  The next instant it nodded at him
familiarly.

To the superstitions mountaineer this suggested that the old woman
had died since he had left her house, and here was her ghost already
vagrant in the woods!

The foolish fellow did not wait to put this fancy to the test.  With
a piercing cry he sprang past, and fled like a frightened deer
through the wilderness homeward.

In his own house he hardly felt more secure.  He could not rest--he
could not sleep.  He stirred the embers with a trembling hand, and
sat shivering over them.  His wife, willing enough to believe in
"harnts"* as appearing to other people, was disposed to repudiate
them when they presumed to offer their dubious association to
members of her own family circle.

* Ghosts.

"Dell-law!" she exclaimed scornfully.  "I say harnt!  Old Mrs.
Price, though spry ter the las', war so proud o' her age an' her
ailments that she wouldn't hev nobody see her walk a step, or stand
on her feet, fur nuthin'.  Her darter-in-law tole me ez the only way
ter find out how nimble she really be war ter box one o' her
gran'chill'n, an' then she'd bounce out'n her cheer, an' jounce
round the room after thar daddy or mammy, whichever hed boxed the
chill'n.  That fursaken couple always hed ter drag thar chill'n out
in the woods, out'n earshot of the house, ter whip 'em, an' then
threat 'em ef they dare let thar granny know they hed been struck.
But elsewise she hed ter be lifted from her bed ter her cheer by the
h'a'th.  She wouldn't hev HER sperit seen a-walkin' way up hyar a-
top o' the mounting, like enny healthy harnt, fur nuthin' in this
worl'.  Whatever 'twar, 'twarn't HER.  An' I reckon of the truth war
knowed, 'twarn't nuthin' at all--forg, mebbe."

This stalwart reasoning served to steady his nerves a little.  And
when the moon went down and the day was slowly breaking, he took his
way, with a vacillating intention and many a chilling doubt, along
the winding road to the scene of his fright.

It was not yet time by a good hour or more to go to work, and
nothing was stirring.  A wan light was on the landscape when he came
in sight of the great tree prone upon the ground.  And there, close
to the edge of the road, as if she had stepped aside to let him
pass, was the figure of a little, bent old woman--nay, in the
brightening dawn, a bush--a blackberry bush, clad in a blue-checked
apron, a red plaid shawl, and with a neat sunbonnet nodding on its
topmost spray.

His first emotion was intense relief.  Then he stood staring at the
bush in rising indignation.  This sandy by-way of a road led only to
his own house, and this image of a small and bent old woman had
doubtless been devised, to terrify him, by some one who knew of his
mission, and that he could not return except by this route.

Only for a moment did he feel uncertain as to the ghost-maker's
identity.  There was something singularly familiar to him in the
plaid of the shawl--even in the appearance of the bonnet, although
it was now limp and damp.  He saw it at "meet'n" whenever the
circuit rider preached, and he presently recognized it.  This was
Mrs. Dicey's bonnet!

His face hardened.  He set his teeth together.  An angry flush
flared to the roots of his hair.

Not that he suspected the widow of having set this trap to frighten
him.  He was not learned, nor versed in feminine idiosyncrasies, but
it does not require much wisdom to know that on no account whatever
does a woman's best bonnet stay out all night in the dew,
intentionally.  The presence of her bonnet proved the widow's alibi.

Like a flash he remembered Birt's anger the previous day.  "Told me
he'd make me divide work mo' ekal, an' ez good ez said he'd knock me
down ef he could.  An' I told him I'd hold the grudge agin him jes'
the same--an' I will!"

He felt sure that it was Birt who had thus taken revenge, because he
was kept at work while his fellow-laborer was free to go.

Byers thought the boy would presently come to take the garments
home, and conceal his share in the matter, before any one else would
be likely to stir abroad.

"An' I'll hide close by with a good big hickory stick, an' I'll gin
him a larrupin' ez he won't furgit in a month o' Sundays," he
resolved, angrily.

He opened his clasp-knife, and walked slowly into the woods, looking
about for a choice hickory sprout.  He did not at once find one of a
size that he considered appropriate to the magnitude of Birt's
wickedness, and he went further perhaps than he realized, and stayed
longer.

He had a smile of stern satisfaction on his face when he was lopping
off the leaves and twigs of a specimen admirably adapted for
vengeance.  He was stealthy in returning, keeping behind the trees,
and slipping softly from bole to bole.  At last, as the winding road
was once more in view, he crouched down behind the roots of the
great fallen oak.

"I don't want him ter git a glimge of me, an' skeer him off afore I
kin lay a-holt on him," he said.

He intended to keep the neighboring bush under close watch, and
through the interlacing roots he peered out furtively at it.  His
eyes distended and he hastily rose from his hiding-place.

The blackberry bush was swaying in the wind, clothed only in its own
scant and rusty leaves.  A wren perched on a spray, chirped cheerful
matins.



CHAPTER VI.

His scheme was thwarted.  The boy had come and gone in his absence,
all unaware of his proximity and the impending punishment so
narrowly escaped.

But when Andy Byers reached the tanyard and went to work, he said
nothing to Birt.  He did not even allude to the counterfeit
apparition in the woods, although Mrs. Price's probable recovery was
more than once under discussion among the men who came and went,--
indeed, she lived many years thereafter, to defend her lucky
grandchildren against every device of discipline.  Byers had given
heed to more crafty counsels.  On the whole he was now glad that he
had not had the opportunity to make Birt and the hickory sprout
acquainted with each other.  This would be an acknowledgment that he
had been terrified by the manufactured ghost, and he preferred
foregoing open revenge to encountering the jocose tanner's ridicule,
and the gibes that would circulate at his expense throughout the
country-side.  But he cherished the grievance, and he resolved that
Birt should rue it.  He had expected that Birt would boast of having
frightened him.  He intended to admit that he had been a trifle
startled, and in treating the matter thus lightly he hoped it would
seem that the apparition was a failure.

However, day by day passed and nothing was said.  The ghost vanished
as mysteriously as it had come.  Only Mrs. Dicey, taking her bonnet
and apron and shawl from the chest, was amazed at the extraordinary
manner in which they were folded and at their limp condition, and
when she found a bunch of cockle-burs in the worsted fringes of the
shawl she declared that witches must have had it, for she had not
worn it since early in April when there were no cockle-burs.  She
forthwith nailed a horseshoe on the door to keep the witches out,
and she never liked the shawl so well after she had projected a
mental picture of a lady wearing it, riding on a broomstick, and
sporting also a long peaked nose.

Birt hardly noticed the crusty and ungracious conduct of Andy Byers
toward him.  He worked on doggedly, scheming all the time to get off
from the tanyard, and wondering again and again why Nate had gone,
and where, and when he would return.

One day--a gray day it was and threatening rain--as he came suddenly
out of the shed, he saw a boy at the bars.  It was Nate Griggs!  No;
only for a moment he thought this was Nate.  But this fellow's eyes
were not so close together; his hair was less sandy; there were no
facial indications of extreme slyness.  It was only Nathan's humble
likeness, his younger brother, Timothy.

He had Nate's coat thrown over his arm, and he shouldered his
brother's rifle.

Tim came slouching slowly into the tanyard, a good-natured grin on
his face.  He paused only to knock Rufe's hat over his eyes, as the
small boy stood in front of the low-spirited mule, both hands busy
with the animal's mouth, striving to open his jaws to judge by his
teeth how old he might be.

"The critter'll bite ye, Rufe!" Birt exclaimed, for as Rufe stooped
to pick up his hat the mule showed some curiosity in his turn, and
was snuffling at Rufe's hay-colored hair.

Rufe readjusted his head-gear, and ceasing his impolite researches
into the mule's age, came up to the other two boys.  Tim had paused
by the shed, and leaning upon the rifle, began to talk.

"I war a-passin' by, an' I thought I'd drap in on ye."

"Hev you-uns hearn from Nate since he hev been gone away?" demanded
Birt anxiously.

"He hev come home," responded Tim.

"When did he git home?" Birt asked with increasing suspicion.

"Las' week," said Tim carelessly.

Another problem!  Why had Nate not communicated with his partner
about their proposed work?  It seemed a special avoidance.

"I onderstood ez how he aimed ter bide away longer," Birt remarked.

"He did count on stayin' longer," said Tim, "but he rid night an'
day ter git hyar sooner.  It 'pears like ter me he war in sech a
hurry so ez ter start ME ter work, and nuthin' else in this worl'.
I owe Nate a debt, ye see, an' I hev ter work it out.  I hev been so
onlucky ez I couldn't make out ter pay him nohow in the worl'.  Ye
see, I traded with Nate fur a shoat, an' the spiteful beastis
sneaked out'n my pen, an' went rootin' round the aidge o' the
clearin', an' war toted off bodaciously by a bar ez war a-prowlin'
round thar.  An' I got no good o' that thar shoat, 'kase the bar hed
him, but I hed to pay fur him all the same.  An' dad gin his
cornsent ter Nate ter let me work a month an' better fur him, ter
pay out'n debt fur the shoat."

"What work be you-uns goin' ter do?"  Birt had a strong impression,
amounting to a conviction, that there was something behind all this,
which he was slowly approaching.

"Why," said Tim, in surprise, "hain't ye hearn bout'n Nate's new
land what he hev jes' got 'entered' ez he calls it?  He hev got a
grant fur it from the land-office down yander in Sparty, whar he hev
been."

"New land--'ENTERED!'" faltered Birt.

Tim nodded.  "Nate fund a trac' o' land a-layin' ter suit his mind
what b'longed ter nobody but the State--vacant land, ye see--an' so
he went ter the 'entry-taker,' they calls him, an' gits it
'entered,' an' the surveyor kem an' medjured it, an' then Nate got a
grant fur it, an' now it air his'n.  The Gov'nor o' the State hev
sot his name ter that thar grant--the Gov'nor o' Tennessee!"
reiterated Tim pridefully.  "An' the great seal o' the State!"

"Whar be the land?" gasped Birt, possessed by a dreadful fear.

His face was white, its muscles rigid.  Its altered expression could
not for an instant have escaped the notice of Timothy's brother
Nathan.

"Why, it lays bout'n haffen mile off--all down the ravine nigh that
thar salt-lick; but look-a-hyar, Birt--what ails ye?"

The stunned despair in the white face had at last arrested his
careless attention.

"Don't ye be mindin' of me--I feel sorter porely an' sick all of a
suddint; tell on 'bout the land an' sech," said Birt.

He sat down on the end of the wood-pile, and Tim, still leaning on
the rifle, recommenced.  He was generally much cowed and kept down
by Nate, and was unaccustomed to respect and consideration.
Therefore he felt a certain gratification in having so attentive a
listener.

"Waal, I never hearn o' this fashion o' enterin' land like Nate done
in all my life afore; though dad say that's the law in Tennessee,
ter git a title ter vacant land ez jes' b'longs ter the State.
Mebbe them air the ways ez Nate l'arned whilst he war a-hangin'
round the Settlemint so constant, an' forever talkin' ter the men
thar."

Birt's precocity had never let him feel at a disadvantage with Nate,
although his friend was five years older.  Now he began to
appreciate that Nate was indeed a man grown, and had become
sophisticated in the ways of his primitive world by his association
with the other men at the Settlement.

There was a pause.  But the luxury of being allowed to talk without
contradiction or rebuke presently induced Tim to proceed.

"He war hyar mighty nigh all day long," he said reflectively.  "He
eat his dinner along of we-uns."

"Who? the Gov'nor o' the State?" exclaimed Birt, astounded.

"Naw, 'twarn't HIM," Tim admitted somewhat reluctantly, since Birt
seemed disposed to credit "we-uns" with a gubernatorial guest.
"It's the surveyor I'm talkin' 'bout.  Nate hed ter pay him three
dollars an' better fur medjurin' the land.  He tole Nate ez his land
war ez steep an' rocky a spot ez thar war in Tennessee from e-end
ter e-end.  He axed Nate what ailed him ter hanker ter pay taxes on
sech a pack o' bowlders an' bresh.  He 'lowed the land warn't wuth a
cent an acre."

"What did Nate say?" asked Birt, who hung with feverish interest on
every thoughtless word.

"Waal, Nate 'lows ez he hev fund a cur'ous metal on his land; he say
it air GOLD!"  Tim opened his eyes very wide, and smacked his lips,
as if the word tasted good.  "He 'lowed ez he needn't hev been in
sech a hurry ter enter his land, 'kase the entry-taker told it ter
him ez it air the law in Tennessee ez ennybody ez finds a mine or
val'able min'ral on vacant land hev got six months extry ter enter
the land afore ennybody else kin, an' ef ennybody else wants ter
enter it, they hev ter gin the finder o' the mine thirty days'
notice."

Tim winked, an impressive demonstration but for the insufficiency of
eyelashes:  -

"The surveyor he misdoubted, an' 'lowed ez gold hed never been fund
in these parts.  He said they fund gold in them mountings furder
east 'bout twenty odd year ago--in 1831, I believe he said.  He
'lowed them mountings hain't got no coal like our'n hev, an' the
Cumberland Mountings hain't got no gold.  An' then in a minit he tuk
ter misdoubtin' on the t'other side o' his mouth.  He 'lowed ez
Nate's min'ral MOUGHT be gold, an' then ag'in it moughtn't."

The essential difference between these two extremes has afforded
scope for vacillation to more consistent men than the surveyor.

"Thar's the grant right now, in the pocket o' Nate's coat," said
Tim, shifting the garment on his arm to show a stiff, white folded
paper sticking out of the breast pocket.  "I reckon when he tole me
ter tote his gun an' coat home, he furgot the grant war in his
pocket, 'kase he fairly dotes on it, an' won't trest it out'n his
sight."

Nate was in the habit of exacting similar services from his
acquiescent younger brother, and Tim had his hands full, as he tried
to hold the gun, and turn the coat on his arm.  He finally hung the
garment on a peg in the shed, and shouldered the weapon.  Suddenly
he whirled around toward Rufe, who was still standing by.

"What in the nation air inside o' that thar boy?" he exclaimed.  "A
chicken, ain't it?"

For a musical treble chirping was heard proceeding apparently from
Rufe's pocket.  This chicken differed from others that Rufe had put
away, in being alive and hearty.

The small boy entered into the conversation with great spirit, to
tell that a certain hen which he owned had yesterday come off her
nest with fourteen of the spryest deedies that ever stepped.  One in
especial had so won upon Rufe by its beauty and grace of deportment
that he was carrying it about with him, feeding it at close
intervals, and housing it in the security of his pocket.

The deedie hardly made a moan.  There was no use in remonstrating
with Rufe,--everything that came within his eccentric orbit seemed
to realize that,--and the deedie was contentedly nestling down in
his pocket, apparently resigned to lead the life of a portemonnaie.

Rufe narrated with pardonable pride the fact that, some time before,
his great-uncle, Rufus Dicey, had sent to him from the "valley
kentry" a present of a pair of game chickens, and that this deedie
was from the first egg hatched in the game hen's brood.

But Rufe was not selfish.  He offered to give Tim one of the chicks.
Now poultry was Tim's weakness.  He accepted with more haste than
was seemly, and at once asked for the deedie in the small boy's
pocket.  Rufe, however, refused to part from the chick of his
adoption, and presently Tim, with the gun on his shoulder, left the
tanyard in company with Rufe, to look over the brood of game chicks,
and make a selection from among them.

Birt hardly noticed what they did or said.  Every faculty was
absorbed in considering the wily game which his false friend had
played so successfully.  It was all plain enough now.  The fruit of
his discovery would be plucked by other hands.  There was to be no
division of the profits.  Nate Griggs had coveted the whole.  His
craft had secured it for himself alone.  He had the legal title to
the land, the mine--all!  There seemed absolutely no vulnerable
point in his scheme.  With suddenly sharpened perceptions, Birt
realized that if he should now claim the discovery and the
consequent right of thirty days' notice of Nate's intention, by
virtue of the priority of entering land accorded by the statute to
the finder of a mine or valuable mineral, it would be considered a
groundless boast, actuated by envy and jealousy.  He had told no one
but Nate of his discovery--and would not Nate now deny it!

However, one thing in the future was certain,--Nathan Griggs should
not escape altogether scathless.  For a long time Birt sat
motionless, revolving vengeful purposes in his mind.  Every moment
he grew more bitter, as he reflected upon his wrecked scheme, his
wonderful fatuity, and the double dealing of his chosen coadjutor.
But he would get even with Nate Griggs yet; he promised himself
that,--he would get even!

At last the falling darkness warned him home.  When he rose his
limbs trembled, his head was in a whirl, and the familiar scene
swayed, strange and distorted, before him.  He steadied himself
after a moment, finished the odd jobs he had left undone, and
presently was trudging homeward.

A heavy black cloud overhung the woods; an expectant stillness
brooded upon the sultry world; an angry storm was in the air.  The
first vivid flash and simultaneous peal burst from the sky as he
reached the passage between the two rooms.

"Ye air powerful perlite ter come a-steppin' home jes' at supper-
time," said his mother advancing to meet him.  "Ye lef' no wood
hyar, an' ye said ye would borry the mule, an' come home early a-
purpose to haul some.  An' me hyar with nuthin' to cook supper with
but sech chips an' blocks an' bresh ez I could pick up off'n the
groun'."

Birt's troubles had crowded out the recollection of this domestic
duty.

"I clean furgot," he admitted, penitently.  Then he asked suddenly,
"An' whar war Rufe, an' Pete, an' Joe, ez YE hed ter go ter pickin'
up of chips an' sech off'n the groun'?"

He turned toward the group of small boys.  "Air you-uns all disabled
somehows, ez ye can't pick up chips an' bresh an' sech?" he said.
"An' ef ye air, whyn't ye go ter the tanyard arter me?"

"They war all off in the woods, a-lookin' arter Rufe's trap ez ye
sot fur squir'ls," Mrs. Dicey explained.  "It hed one in it, an' I
cooked it fur supper."

Birt said that he could go out early with his axe and cut enough
wood for breakfast tomorrow, and then he fell silent.  Once or twice
his preoccupied demeanor called forth comment.

"Whyn't ye eat some o' the squir'l, Birt?" his mother asked at the
supper table.  "Pears-like ter me ez it air cooked toler'ble tasty."

Birt could not eat.  He soon rose from the table and resumed his
chair by the window, and for half an hour no word passed between
them.

The thunder seemed to roll on the very roof of the cabin, and it
trembled beneath the heavy fall of the rain.  At short intervals a
terrible blue light quivered through crevices in the "daubin'"
between the logs of the wall, and about the rude shutter which
closed the glassless window.  Now and then a crash from the forest
told of a riven tree.  But the storm had no terrors for the inmates
of this humble dwelling.  Pete and Joe had already gone to bed;
Tennessee had fallen asleep while playing on the floor, and Rufe
dozed peacefully in his chair.  Even Mrs. Dicey nodded as she
knitted, the needles sometimes dropping from her nerveless hand.

Birt silently watched the group for a time in the red light of the
smouldering fire and the blue flashes from without.  At length he
softly rose and crept noiselessly to the door; the fastening was the
primitive latch with a string attached; it opened without a sound in
his cautious handling, and he found himself in the pitchy darkness
outside, the wild mountain wind whirling about him, and the rain
descending in steady torrents.

He had stumbled only a few steps from the house when he thought he
indistinctly heard the door open again.  He dreaded his mother's
questions, but he stopped and looked back.

He saw nothing.  There was no sound save the roar of the wind, the
dash of the rain, and the commotion among the branches of the trees.

He went on once more, absorbed in his dreary reflections and the
fierce anger that burned in his heart.

"I'll git even with Nate Griggs," he said, over and again.  "I'll
git even with him yit."



CHAPTER VII.

When Birt reached the fence, he discovered that the bars were down.
Rufe had forgotten to replace them that afternoon when he drove in
the cow to be milked.  Despite his absorption, Birt paused to put
them up, remembering the vagrant mountain cattle that might stray in
upon the corn.  He found the familiar little job difficult enough,
for it seemed to him that there was never before so black a night.
Even looking upward, he could not see the great wind-tossed boughs
of the chestnut-oak above his head.  He only knew they were near,
because acorns dropped upon the rail in his hands, and rebounded
resonantly.  But an owl, blown helplessly down the gale, was not
much better off, for all its vaunted nocturnal vision.  As it
drifted by, on the currents of the wind, its noiseless, out-
stretched wings, vainly flapping, struck Birt suddenly in the face,
and frightened by the collision, it gave an odd, peevish squeak.

Birt, too, was startled for a moment.  Then he exclaimed irritably,
"Oh, g'way owEL"--realizing what had struck him.

The next moment he paused abruptly.  He thought he heard, close at
hand, amongst the glooms, a faint chuckle.  Something--was it?--
SOMEBODY laughing in the darkness?

He stood intently listening.  But now he heard only the down-pour of
the rain, the sonorous gusts of the wind, the multitudinous voices
of the muttering leaves.

He said to himself that it was fancy.  "All this trouble ez I hev
hed along o' Nate Griggs hev mighty nigh addled my brains."

The name recalled his resolve.

"I'll git even with him, though.  I'll git even with him yit," he
reiterated as he plodded on heavily down the path, his mind once
more busy with all the details of his discovery, his misplaced
confidence, and the wreck of his hopes.

It seemed so hard that he should never before have heard of
"entering land," and of that law of the State according priority to
the finder of mineral.  The mine was his, but he had hid the
discovery from all but Nate, who claimed it himself, and had secured
the legal title.

"But I'll git even with him," he said resolutely between his set
teeth.

He had thought it a lucky chance to remember, in his reverie before
the fire-lit hearth, that peg in the shed at the tanyard on which
Tim had hung his brother's coat.  Somehow the episode of the
afternoon had left so vivid an impression on Birt's mind that hours
afterward he seemed to see the dull, clouded sky, the sombre,
encircling woods, the brown stretch of spent tan, the little gray
shed, and within it, hanging upon a peg, the butternut jeans coat, a
stiff white paper protruding from its pocket.

That grant, he thought, had taken from him his rights.  He would
destroy it--he would tear it into bits, and cast it to the turbulent
mountain winds.  It was not his, to be sure.  But was it justly
Nate's?--he had no right to enter the land down the ravine.

And so Birt argued with his conscience.

Now wherever Conscience calls a halt, it is no place for Reason to
debate the question.  The way ahead is no thoroughfare.

Birt did not recognize the tearing of the paper as stealing, but he
knew that all this was morally wrong, although he would not admit
it.  He would not forego his revenge--it was too dear; he was too
deeply injured.  In the anger that possessed his every faculty, he
did not appreciate its futility.

There were other facts which he did NOT know.  He was ignorant that
the deed which he contemplated was a crime in the estimation of the
law, a penitentiary offense.

And toward this terrible pitfall he trudged in the darkness, saying
over and again to himself, "I'll git even with Nate Griggs; he'll
hev no grant, no land, no gold--no more 'n me.  I'll git even with
him."

His progress seemed incredibly slow as he groped along the path.
But the rain soon ceased; the wind began to scatter the clouds;
through a rift he saw a great, glittering planet blazing high above
their dark turmoils.

How the drops pattered down as the wind tossed the laurel!--once
they sounded like footfalls close behind him.  He turned and looked
back into the obscurities of the forest.  Nothing--a frog had begun
to croak far away, and the vibrations of the katydid were strident
on the damp air.

And here was the tanyard, a denser area of gloom marking where the
house and shed stood in the darkness.  He did not hesitate.  He
stepped over the bars, which lay as usual on the ground, and walked
across the yard to the shed.  The eaves were dripping with moisture.
But the coat, still hanging within on the peg, was dry.

He had a thrill of repulsion when he touched it.  His hand fell.

"But look how Nate hev treated me," he remonstrated with his
conscience.

The next moment he had drawn the grant half-way out of the pocket,
and as he moved he almost stepped upon something close behind him.
All at once he knew what it was, even before a flash of the distant
lightning revealed a little tow-head down in the darkness, and a
pair of black eyes raised to his in perfect confidence.

It was the little sister who had followed him to-night, as she
always did when she could.

"Stand back thar, Tennessee!" he faltered.

He was trembling from head to foot.  And yet Tennessee was far too
young to tell that she had seen the grant in his hands, to
understand, even to question.  But had he been seized by the whole
Griggs tribe, he could not have been so panic-stricken as he was by
the sight of that unknowing little head, the touch of the chubby
little hand on his knee.

He thrust the grant back into the pocket of Nate's coat.  His
resolve was routed by the presence of love and innocence.  Not here-
-not now could he be vindictive, malicious.  With some urgent,
inborn impulse strongly constraining him, he caught the little
sister in his arms, and fled headlong through the darkness,
homeward.

As he went he was amazed that he should have contemplated this
revenge.

"Why, I can't afford ter be a scoundrel an' sech, jes' 'kase Nate
Griggs air a tricky feller an' hev fooled me.  Ef Tennessee hedn't
stepped up so powerful peart I moughtn't hev come ter my senses in
time.  I mought hev tore up Nate's grant by now.  But arter this I
ain't never goin' ter set out ter act like a scamp jes' 'kase
somebody else does."

His conscience had prevailed, his better self returned.  And when he
reached home, and opening the door saw his mother still nodding over
her knitting, and Rufe asleep in his chair, and the fire smouldering
on the hearth, all as he had left it, he might have thought that he
had dreamed the temptation and his rescue, but for his dripping
garments and Tennessee in his arms all soaking with the rain.

The noise of his entrance roused his mother, who stared in drowsy
astonishment at the bedraggled apparition on the threshold.

"Tennie follered me ter the tanyard 'fore I fund her out," Birt
explained.  "It 'pears ter hev rained on her, considerable," he
added deprecatingly.

Tennie was looking eagerly over her shoulder to note the effect of
this statement.  Her streaming hair flirted drops of water on the
floor; her cheeks were ruddy; her black eyes brightened with
apprehension.

"Waal, sir! that thar child beats all.  Never mind, Tennie, ye'll
meet up with a wild varmint some day when ye air follerin' Birt off
from the house, an' I ain't surprised none ef it eats ye!  But
shucks!" Mrs. Dicey continued impersonally, "I mought ez well save
my breath; Tennie ain't feared o' nuthin', ef Birt air by."

The word "varmint" seemed to recall something to Tennessee.  She
began to chatter unintelligibly about an "owEL," and to chuckle so,
that Birt had sudden light upon that mysterious laugh which he had
heard behind him at the bars.

In his pride in Tennessee he related how the owl had startled him,
and the little girl, invisible in the darkness, had laughed.

"Tennessee ain't pretty, I know, but she air powerful peart," he
said, affectionately, as he placed her upon her feet on the floor.

Birt was out early with his axe the next day.  The air was
delightfully pure after the rain-storm; the sky, gradually becoming
visible, wore the ideal azure; the freshened foliage seemed tinted
anew.  And the morning was pierced by the gilded, glittering
javelins of the sunrise, flung from over the misty eastern
mountains.  As the day dawned all sylvan fascinations were alert in
the woods.  The fragrant winds were garrulous with wild legends of
piney gorges; of tumultuous cascades fringed by thyme and mint and
ferns.  Every humble weed lent odorous suggestions.  The airy things
all took to wing.  And the spider was a-weaving.

Birt had felled a slender young ash, and was cutting it into lengths
for the fireplace, when he noticed a squirrel, sleek woodland dandy,
frisking about a rotten log at some little distance, by the
roadside.

Suddenly the squirrel paused, then nimbly sped away.  There was the
sound of approaching hoofs along the road, and presently from around
the curve a woman appeared mounted on a sorrel mare, and with a
long-legged colt ambling in the rear.

It was Mrs. Griggs, setting out on a journey of some ten miles to
visit her married daughter who lived on a neighboring spur.  She had
taken an early start to "git rid o' the heat o' the noon," as she
explained to Mrs. Dicey, who had run out to the rail fence when she
reined up beside it.  Birt dropped his axe and joined them,
expecting to hear more about Nate's grant and the gold mine.  Rufe
and Tennessee added their company without any definite intention.
Pete and Joe were hurrying out of the house toward the group.  All
the dogs congregated, some of them climbing over the fence to
investigate the colt, which was skittish under the ordeal.  Even the
turkey-gobbler, strutting on the outskirts of the assemblage, had an
attentive aspect, as if he, too, relished the gossip.

Mrs. Griggs's pink calico sunbonnet surmounted the cap with the
explanatory ruffle.  She carried a fan of turkey feathers, and with
appropriate gesticulation, it aided in expounding to Mrs. Dicey the
astonishing news that Nate had found a gold mine on vacant land, and
had entered the tract.  They intended to send specimens to the State
Assayer, and they were all getting ready to begin work at once.

Another surprise to Birt!  The ignorant mountain boy had never heard
of the Assayer.  But indeed Nate had only learned of the existence
of the office and its uses during that memorable trip to Sparta.

The prideful Mrs. Griggs from her elevation, literal and
metaphorical, supplemented all this by the creditable statements
that Nate had turned twenty-one, had cast his vote, and had a right
to a choice at the Cross-roads.

Then she chirruped to the rawboned sorrel mare, and jogged off down
the road, followed by the frisky colt, whose long, slender legs when
in motion seemed so fragile that it was startling to witness the
temerity with which he kicked up his frolicsome heels.  The dogs,
with that odd canine affectation of having just perceived the
intruders, pursued them with sudden asperity, barking and snapping,
and at last came trotting nimbly home, wagging their tails and with
a dutiful mien.

Mrs. Dicey went back into the house, and sat for a time in envious
meditation, fairly silenced, and with her apron flung over her face.
Then she fell to lamenting that she had been working all her life
for nothing, and it would take so little to make the family
comfortable, and that her children seemed "disabled somehow in thar
heads, an' though always rootin' around in the woods, hed never fund
no gold mine nor nuthin' else out o' the common."

Birt kept silent, but the gloom and trouble in his face suddenly
touched her heart.

"Thar now, Birt!" she exclaimed, with a world of consolation in her
tones, "I don't mean ter say that, nuther.  Ain't I a-thinkin' day
an' night o' how smart ye be--stiddy an' sensible an' hard-workin'
jes' like a man--an' what a good son ye hev been to me!  An' the
t'other chill'n air good too, an' holps me powerful, though Rufe air
hendered some, by the comical natur o' the critter."

She broke out with a cheerful laugh, in which Birt could not join.

"An' I mus' be gittin' breakfus fur the chill'n," she said, kneeling
down on the hearth, and uncovering the embers which had been kept
all night under the ashes.

"Don't ye fret, sonny.  I ain't goin' ter grudge Nate his gold mine.
I reckon sech a good son ez ye be, an' a gold mine too, would be too
much luck fur one woman.  Don't ye fret, sonny."

Birt's self-control gave way abruptly.  He rose in great agitation,
and started toward the door.  Then he paused, and broke forth with
passionate incoherence, telling amidst sobs and tears the story of
the woodland's munificence to him, and how he had flung the gift
away.

In recounting the hopes that had deluded him, the fears that had
gnawed, and the despair in which they were at last merged, he did
not notice, for a time, her look as she still knelt motionless
before the embers on the hearth.

He faltered, and grew silent; then stared dumbly at her.

She seemed as one petrified.  Her face had blanched; its lines were
as sharp and distinct as if graven in stone; only her eyes spoke, an
eloquent anguish.  Her faculties were numbed for a moment.  But
presently there was a quiver in her chin, and her voice rang out.

And yet did she understand? did she realize the loss of the mine?
For it was not this that she lamented

"Birt Dicey!" she cried in an appalled tone.  "Did ye hide it from
yer MOTHER--an' tell NATE GRIGGS?"

Birt hung his head.  The folly of it!

"What ailed ye, ter hide it from me?" she asked deprecatingly,
holding out her worn, hard-working hands.  "Hev I ever done ye
harm?"

"Nuthin' but good."

"Don't everybody know a boy's mother air bound ter take his part
agin all the worl'?"

"Everybody but me," said the penitent Birt.

"What ailed ye, ter hide it from me?  What did ye 'low I'd do?"

"I 'lowed ye wouldn't want me ter go pardners with Nate," he said
drearily.

"I reckon I wouldn't!" she admitted.

"Ye always said he war a snake in the grass."

"He hev proved that air a true word."

"I wisht I hedn't tole him!" cried Birt vainly.  "I wisht I hedn't."

He watched her with moody eyes as she rose at last with a sigh and
went mechanically about her preparations for breakfast.

There was a division between them.  He felt the gulf widening.

"I jes' wanted it fur you-uns, ennyhow," he said, defending his
motives.  "I 'lowed ez I mought make enough out'n it ter buy a
horse."

"I hain't got time ter sorrow 'bout'n no gold mine," she said
loftily.  "I used ter believe ye set a heap o' store by yer mother,
an' war willin' ter trust her--ye an' me hevin' been through mighty
hard times together.  But ye don't--I reckon ye never did.  I hev
los' mo' than enny gold mine."

And this sorrow for a vanished faith resolved itself into tears with
which she salted her humble bread.



CHAPTER VIII.

If she had had any relish for triumph, she might have found it in
Birt's astonishment to learn that she understood all the details of
entering land, which had been such a mystery to him.

"'Twar the commonest thing in the worl', whenst I war young, ter
hear 'bout'n folks enterin' land," she said.  "But nowadays thar
ain't no talk 'bout'n it sca'cely, 'kase the best an' most o' the
land in the State hev all been tuk up an' entered--'ceptin' mebbe a
trac', hyar an' thar, full o' rock, an' so steep 't ain't wuth
payin' the taxes on."

Simple as she was, she could have given him valuable counsel when it
was sorely needed.  He hung about the house later than was his wont,
bringing in the store of wood for her work during the day, and
"packing" the water from the spring, with the impulse in his
attention to these little duties to make what amends he might.

When at last he started for the tanyard, he knew by the sun that he
was long over-due.  He walked briskly along the path through the
sassafras and sumach bushes, on which the rain-drops still clung.
He was presently brushing them off in showers, for he had begun to
run.  It occurred to him that this was no time to seem even a trifle
remiss in his work at the tanyard.  Since he had lost all his hopes
down the ravine, the continuance of Jube Perkins's favor and the
dreary routine with the mule and the bark-mill were his best
prospects.  It would never do to offend the tanner now.

"With sech a pack o' chill'n ter vittle ez we-uns hev got at our
house," he muttered.

As he came crashing through the underbrush into view of the tanyard,
he noticed instantly that it did not wear its usual simple,
industrial aspect.  A group of excited men were standing in front of
the shed, one of them gesticulating wildly.

And running toward the bars came Tim Griggs, panting and white-
faced, and exclaiming incoherently at the sight of Birt.

"Oh, Birt," he cried, "I war jes' startin' to yer house arter you-
uns; they tole me to go an' fetch ye.  Fur massy's sake, gimme
Nate's grant.  I'm fairly afeared o' him.  He'll break every bone I
own."  He held out his hand.  "Gimme the grant!"

"Nate's grant!" exclaimed Birt aghast.  "I hain't got it!  I hain't"
-

He paused abruptly.  He could not say that he had not touched it.

Tim's wits were sharpened by the keen anxiety of the crisis.  He
noticed the hesitation.  "Ye hev hed it," he cried wildly.  "Ye know
ye hev been foolin' with it.  Ye know 'twar you-uns!"

He changed to sudden appeal.  "Don't put the blame off on me, Birt,"
he pleaded.  "I'm fairly afeared o' Nate."

"Ain't the grant in the pocket o' his coat--whar ye left it hangin'
on a peg in the shed?" asked Birt, dismayed.

"Naw--naw!" exclaimed Tim, despairingly.  "He missed his coat this
mornin', bein' the weather war cooler, an' then the grant, an' he
sent me arter it.  An' I fund the coat a-hangin' thar on the peg,
whar I hed lef' it, bein' ez I furgot it when I went off with Rufe
ter look at his chickens, an' the pocket war empty an' the paper
gone!  Nate hev kem ter sarch, too!"

Once more he held out his hand.  "Gimme the grant.  Nate 'lows 'twar
you-uns ez tuk it, bein' ez I lef' it hyar."

Birt flushed angrily.  "I'll say a word ter Nate Griggs!" he
declared.

And he pushed past the trembling Tim, and took his way briskly into
the tanyard.

There was a vague murmur in the group as he approached, and Nate
Griggs came out from its midst, nodding his head threateningly.  His
hat, thrust far back on his sandy hair, left in bold relief his
long, thin face with its small eyes, which seemed now so close
together that his glance had the effect of a squint.  He scanned
Birt narrowly.

This was the first time the two had met since Birt's ill-starred
confidence there by the bark-mill.

"What ails ye, ter 'low ez it air ME ez hev got yer grant, Nate
Griggs?" Birt asked, steadily meeting the accusation.

The excitement had impaired for the moment Nate Griggs's cunning.

"'Kase," he blurted out, "ye hev been a-tryin' ter purtend ez ye
fund the mine fust, an' hev been a-tellin' folks 'bout'n it."

"Prove it," said Birt, in sudden elation.  "Who war it I tole, an'
when?"

The sly Nathan caught his breath with a gasp.  His craft had
returned.

Admit that to HIM Birt had divulged the discovery of the mine!
Confess, when!  This would invalidate the entry!

"Ye tole TIM," Nate said shamelessly, "an' ez ter when--'twar
yestiddy evenin' at the tanyard.  Didn't he, Tim?"  And he whirled
around to his younger brother for confirmation of this audacious and
deliberate falsehood.

The abject Tim--poor tool!--frightened and cowering, nodded to admit
it.  "Gimme the grant, Birt," he faltered, helplessly.  "I oughtn't
ter hev furgot it."

"Look-a-hyar, Birt," said the tanner with a solemnity which the boy
did not altogether understand, "gin Nate the grant."

"I hain't got it," replied Birt, badgered and growing nervous.

"Tell him, then, ye never teched it."

Birt's impulse was to adopt the word.  But he had seen enough of
falsehood.  He had done with concealment.

"I did tech it," he said boldly, "but I hain't got it.  I put it
back in the pocket o' the coat."

Jube Perkins laid a sudden hand upon his collar.  "'Tain't no use
denyin' it, Birt," he said with the sharp cadence of dismay.  "Gin
the grant back ter Nate, an' mebbe he won't go no furder 'bout'n it.
Stealin' a paper like that air a pen'tiary crime!"

Birt reeled under the word.  He thought of his mother, the children.
He had a bitter foretaste of the suspense, the fear, the
humiliation.  And he was helpless.  For no one would believe him!
His head was in a whirl.  He could not stand.  He sank down upon the
wood-pile, vaguely hearing a word here and there of what was said in
the crowd.

"His mother air a widder-woman," remarked one of the group.  "An'
she air mighty poor."

Andy Byers was laughing cynically.

Absorbed though he was, Birt experienced a subacute wonder that any
one could feel so bitterly toward him as to laugh at a moment like
this.  How had he made Andy Byers his enemy!

Nobody noticed it, for Nate was swaggering about in the crowd,
enjoying this conspicuous opportunity to display all the
sophistications he had acquired in his recent trip to Sparta.  He
was calling upon them to witness that he did not care for the loss
of the grant--the PAPER was nothing to him!--for it was on record in
the land office, and he could get a certified copy from the register
in no time at all.  But his rights were his RIGHTS!--and ten
thousand Diceys should not trample on them.  Birt had doubtless
thought, being ignorant, that he could destroy the title by making
away with the paper; and if there was law in the State, he should
suffer for it.

And after this elaborate rodomontade, Nate strode out of the
tanyard, with the obsequious Tim following humbly.

Birt told his story again and again, to satisfy curious questioners
during the days that ensued.  And when he had finished they would
look significantly at one another, and chuckle incredulously.

The tanner seemed to earnestly wish to befriend him, and urged him
to confess.  "The truth's the only thing ez kin save ye, Birt."

"I'm tellin' the truth," poor Birt would declare.

Then Jube Perkins argued the question:  "How kin ye expec' ennybody
ter b'lieve ye when ye say Tennessee purvented ye from takin' the
grant--ennything the size o' leetle Tennie, thar."

And he pointed at the little sister, who was perched upon the wood-
pile munching an Indian peach.

Somehow Birt did not accurately define the moral force which she had
wielded, for he was untaught, and clumsy of speech, and could not
translate his feelings.  And Jube Perkins was hardly fitted to
understand that subtle coercion of affection.

When he found that Birt would only reiterate that Tennie "kem along
unbeknown an' purvented" him, Jube Perkins gave up the effort at
last, convinced of his guilt.

And Andy Byers said that he was not surprised, for he had known for
some little time that Birt was a "most MISCHIEVIOUS scamp."

Only his mother believed in him, requiting his lack of confidence in
her with a fervor of faith in him that, while it consoled,
nevertheless cut him to the heart.  It has been many years since
then, for all this happened along in the fifties, but Birt has never
forgotten how staunchly she upheld him in every thought when all the
circumstances belied him.  Now that misfortune had touched him,
every trace of her caustic moods had disappeared; she was all
gentleness and tenderness toward him.  And day by day as he went to
his work, meeting everywhere a short word, or a slighting look, he
felt that he could not have borne up, save for the knowledge of that
loyal heart at home.

He was momently in terror of arrest, and he often pondered on Nate's
uncharacteristic forbearance.  Perhaps Nate was afraid that Birt's
story, told from the beginning in court, might constrain belief and
affect the validity of the entry.

Birt vainly speculated, too, upon the strange disappearance of the
grant.  There it was in the pocket of the coat late that night, and
the next morning early--gone!

Sometimes he suspected that Nate had only made a pretense of losing
the grant, in order to accuse him and prejudice public opinion
against him, so that he might not be believed should he claim the
discovery of the mineral down the ravine.

His mother sought to keep him from dwelling upon his troubles.  "We
won't cross the bredge till we git thar," she said.  "Mebbe thar
ain't none ahead."  But her fears for his sake tortured her silent
hours when he was away.  When he came back from his work, there
always awaited him a bright fire, a good supper, and cheerful words
as well, although these were the most difficult to prepare.  The
dogs bounded about him, Tennessee clung to his hand, the boys were
hilarious and loud.

By reason of their mother's silence on the subject, that Birt might
be better able to go, and work, and hold up his head among the men
who suspected him, the children for a time knew nothing of what had
happened.

Now Rufe, although his faults were many and conspicuous, was not
lacking in natural affection.  Had he understood that a cloud
overhung Birt, he could not have been so merry, so facetious, so
queerly and quaintly bad as he was on his visits to the tanyard,
which were peculiarly frequent just now.  If Birt had had the heart
for it, he might have enjoyed some of Rufe's pranks at the expense
of Andy Byers.  The man had once found a sort of entertainment in
making fun of Rufe, and this had encouraged the small boy to
retaliate as best he could.

At this time, however, Byers suddenly became the gravest of men.  He
took little notice of the wiles of his elfish antagonist, and
whenever he fell into a snare devised by Rufe, he was irritable for
a moment, and had forgotten it the next.  He had never a word or
glance for Birt, who marveled at his conduct.  He seemed perpetually
brooding upon some perplexity.  Occasionally in the midst of his
work he would stand motionless for five minutes, the two-handled
knife poised in his grasp, his eyes fixed upon the ground, his
shaggy brows heavily knitted, his expression doubting, anxious.

The tanner commented upon this inactivity, one day.  "Hev ye tuk
root thar, Andy?" he asked.

Byers roused himself with a start.  "Naw," he replied reflectively,
"but I hev been troubled in my mind some, lately, an' I gits ter
studyin' powerful wunst in a while."

As he bent to his work, scraping the two-handled knife up and down
the hide stretched over the wooden horse, he added, "I hev got so ez
I can't relish my vittles sca'cely, bein' so tormented in my mind,
an' my sleep air plumb broke up; 'pears like ter me ez I hev got a
reg'lar gift fur the nightmare."

"Been skeered by old Mis' Price's harnt lately?" Rufe asked suddenly
from his perch upon the wood-pile.

Byers whirled round abruptly, fixing an astonished gaze upon Rufe,
unmindful that the knife slipped from his grasp, and fell clanking
upon the ground.



CHAPTER IX.

This grave, eager gaze Rufe returned with the gayest audacity.

"Been skeered by old Mis' Price's harnt lately?" he once more
chirped out gleefully.

He was comical enough, as he sat on the top of the wood-pile,
hugging his knees with both arms, his old, bent, wool hat perched on
the back of his tow head, and all his jagged squirrel teeth showing
themselves, unabashed, in a wide grin.

Jubal Perkins laughed lazily, as he looked at him.

Then, with that indulgence which Rufe always met at the tanyard, and
which served to make him so pert and forward, the tanner said,
humoring the privileged character, "What be you-uns a-talkin' 'bout,
boy?  Mrs. Price ain't dead."

"HE hev viewed old Mis' Price's harnt," cried Rufe, pointing at Andy
Byers, with a jocosely crooked finger.  "HE air so peart an'
forehanded a-viewin' harnts, he don't hev to wait till folkses be
dead.  HE hev seen Mis' Price's harnt--an' it plumb skeered the wits
out'n him."

Perkins did not understand this.  His interest was suddenly alert.
He took his pipe from his mouth, and glanced over his shoulder at
Byers.  "What air Rufe aimin' at, Andy?" he asked, surprised.

Byers did not reply.  He still gazed steadfastly at Rufe; the knife
lay unheeded on the ground at his feet, and the hide was slipping
from the wooden horse.

At last he said slowly, "Birt tole ye 'bout'n it, eh?"

"Naw, sir!  Naw!"  Rufe rocked himself fantastically to and fro in
imminent peril of toppling off the wood-pile.  "'Twar Tom Byers ez
tole me."

"TOM!" exclaimed Byers, with a galvanic start.

For Tom was his son, and he had not suspected filial treachery in
the matter of the spectral blackberry bush.

Rufe stared in his turn, not comprehending Byers's surprise.

"TOM," he reiterated presently, with mocking explicitness.  "Tom
Byers--I reckon ye knows him.  That thar freckled-faced, snaggled-
toothed, red-headed Tom Byers, ez lives at yer house.  I reckon ye
MUS' know him."

"Tom tole ye--WHAT?" asked the tanner, puzzled by Byers's grave,
anxious face, and Rufe's mysterious sneers.

Rufe broke into the liveliest cackle.  "Tom, he 'lowed ter me ez he
war tucked up in the trundle-bed, fast asleep, that night when his
dad got home from old Mis' Price's house, whar he had been ter hear
her las' words.  Tom, he 'lowed he war dreamin' ez his gran'dad hed
gin him a calf--Tom say the calf war spotted red an' white--an' jes'
ez he war a-leadin' it home with him, his dad kem racin' inter the
house with sech a rumpus ez woke him up, an' he never got the calf
along no furder than the turn in the road.  An' thar sot his dad in
the cheer, declarin' fur true ez he hed seen old Mis' Price's harnt
in the woods, an' b'lieved she mus' be dead afore now.  An' though
thar war a right smart fire on the h'a'th, he war shiverin' an'
shakin' over it, jes' the same ez ef he war out at the wood-pile,
pickin' up chips on a frosty mornin'."

And Rufe crouched over, shivering in every limb, in equally
excellent mimicry of a ghost-seer, or an unwilling chip-picker under
stress of weather.

"My!" he exclaimed with a fresh burst of laughter; "whenst Tom tole
me 'bout'n it I war so tickled I war feared I'd fall.  I los' the
use o' my tongue.  I couldn't stop laffin' long enough ter tell Tom
what I war laffin' at.  An' ez Tom knowed I war snake-bit las' June,
he went home an' tole his mother ez the p'ison hed done teched me in
the head, an' said he reckoned, ef the truth war knowed, I hed fits
ez a constancy.  I say--FITS!"

Once more the bewildered tanner glanced from one to the other.

"Why, ye never tole me ez ye hed seen su'thin' strange in the woods,
Andy," he exclaimed, feeling aggrieved, thus balked of a sensation.
"An' the old woman ain't dead, nohow," he continued reasonably, "but
air strengthenin' up amazin' fast."

"Waal," put in Rufe, hastening to explain this discrepancy in the
spectre, "I hearn you-uns a-sayin' that mornin', fore ye set out
from the tanyard, ez she war mighty nigh dead an' would be gone
'fore night.  An' ez he hed tole me he'd skeer the wits out'n me, I
'lowed ez I could show him ez his wits warn't ez tough ez mine.
Though," added the roguish Rufe, with a grin of enjoyment, "arter I
hed dressed up the blackberry bush in mam's apron an' shawl, an' sot
her bonnet a-top, it tuk ter noddin' and bowin' with the wind, an'
looked so like folks, ez it gin ME a skeer, an' I jes' run home ez
hard ez I could travel.  An Towse, he barked at it!"

Andy Byers spoke suddenly.  "Waal, Birt holped ye, then."

"He never!" cried Rufe, emphatically, unwilling to share the credit,
or perhaps discredit, of the enterprise.  "Birt dunno nuthin' 'bout
it ter this good day."  Rufe winked slyly.  "Birt would tell mam ez
I hed been a-foolin' with her shawl an' bonnet."

Andy Byers still maintained a most incongruous gravity.

"It warn't Birt's doin', at all?" he said interrogatively, and with
a pondering aspect.

Jubal Perkins broke into a derisive guffaw.  "What ails ye, Andy?"
he cried.  "Though ye never seen no harnt, ye 'pear ter be fairly
witched by that thar tricked-out blackberry bush."

Rufe shrugged up his shoulders, and began to shiver in imaginary
terror over a fancied fire.

"Old--Mis'--Price's--harnt!" he wheezed.

The point of view makes an essential difference.  Jube Perkins
thought Rufe's comicality most praiseworthy--his pipe went out while
he laughed.  Byers flushed indignantly.

"Ye aggervatin' leetle varmint!" he cried suddenly, his patience
giving way.

He seized the crouching mimic by the collar, and although he did not
literally knock him off the wood-pile, as Rufe afterward declared,
he assisted the small boy through the air with a celerity that
caused Rufe to wink very fast and catch his breath, when he was
deposited, with a shake, on the soft pile of ground bark some yards
away.

Rufe was altogether unhurt, but a trifle subdued by this sudden
aerial excursion.  The fun was over for the present.  He gathered
himself together, and went demurely and sat down on the lowest log
of the wood-pile.  After a little he produced a papaw from his
pocket, and by the manner in which they went to work upon it, his
jagged squirrel teeth showed that they were better than they looked.

Towse had followed his master to the tanyard, and was lying asleep
beside the woodpile, with his muzzle on his forepaws.

He roused himself suddenly at the sound of munching, and came and
sat upright, facing Rufe, and eyeing the papaw gloatingly.  He
wagged his tail in a beguiling fashion, and now and then turned his
head blandishingly askew.

Of course he would not have relished the papaw, and only begged as a
matter of habit or perhaps on principle; but he was given no
opportunity to sample it, for Rufe hardly noticed him, being
absorbed in dubiously watching Andy Byers, who was once more at
work, scraping the hide with the two-handled knife.

Jubal Perkins had gone into the house for a coal to re-kindle his
pipe, for there is always a smouldering fire in the "smoke-room" for
the purpose of drying the hides suspended from the rafters.  He came
out with it freshly glowing, and sat down on the broad, high pile of
wood.

As the first whiff of smoke wreathed over his head, he said, "What
air the differ ter ye, Andy, whether 't war bub, hyar, or Birt, ez
dressed up the blackberry bush? ye 'pear ter make a differ a-twixt
'em."

Still Byers was evasive.  "Whar's Birt, ennyhow?" he demanded
irrelevantly.

"Waal," drawled the tanner, with a certain constraint, "I hed been
promisin' Birt a day off fur a right smart while, an' I tole him ez
he mought ez well hev the rest o' ter-day.  He 'lowed ez he warn't
partic'lar 'bout a day off, now.  But I tole him ennyhow ter go
along.  I seen him a while ago passin' through the woods, with his
rifle on his shoulder--gone huntin', I reckon."

"GONE HUNTIN'!" ejaculated Rufe in dudgeon, joining unceremoniously
in the conversation of his elders.  "Now, Birt mought hev let me
know!  I'd hev wanted ter go along too."

"Mebbe that air the reason he never tole ye, bub," said Perkins
dryly.

For he could appreciate that Rufe's society was not always a boon,
although he took a lenient view of the little boy.  Any indulgence
of Birt was more unusual, and Andy Byers experienced some surprise
to hear of the unwonted sylvan recreations of the young drudge.  He
noticed that the mule was off duty too, grazing among the bushes
just beyond the fence, and hobbled so that he could not run away.
This precaution might have seemed a practical joke on the mule, for
the poor old animal was only too glad to stand stock still.

Rufe continued his exclamatory indignation.

"Jes' ter go lopin' off inter the woods huntin', 'thout lettin' ME
know!  An' I never gits ter go huntin' nohow!  An' mam won't let me
tech Birt's rifle, 'thout it air ez empty ez a gourd!  She say she
air feared I'll shoot my head off, an' she don't want no boys,
'thout heads, jouncin' round her house--shucks!  Which way did Birt
take, Mister Perkins?--'kase I be goin' ter ketch up."

"He war headed fur that thar salt lick, whenst I las' seen him,"
replied the tanner; "ef ye stir yer stumps right lively, mebbe ye'll
overhaul him yit."

Rufe rose precipitately.  Towse, believing his petition for the
papaw was about to be rewarded, leaped up too, gamboling with a
display of ecstasy that might have befitted a starving creature, and
an elasticity to be expected only of a rubber dog.  As he uttered a
shrill yelp of delight, he sprang up against Rufe, who, reeling
under the shock, dropped the remnant of the papaw.  Towse darted
upon it, sniffed disdainfully, and returned to his capers around
Rufe, evidently declining to believe that all that show of gustatory
satisfaction had been elicited only by the papaw, and that Rufe had
nothing else to eat.

Thus the two took their way out of the tanyard; and even after they
had disappeared, their progress through the underbrush was marked by
an abnormal commotion among the leaves, as the saltatory skeptic of
a dog insisted on more substantial favors than the succulent papaw.

The tanner smoked for a time in silence.

Then, "Birt ain't goin' ter be let ter work hyar ag'in," he said.

Byers elevated his shaggy eyebrows in surprise.

"Ye see," said the tanner in a confidential undertone, "sence Birt
hev stole that thar grant, I kin argufy ez he mought steal su'thin'
else, an' I ain't ekal ter keepin' up a spry lookout on things, an'
bein' partic'lar 'bout the count o' the hides an' sech.  I can't
feel easy with sech a mischeevious scamp around."

Byers made no rejoinder, and the tanner, puffing his pipe, vaguely
watched the wreaths of smoke rise above his head, and whisk
buoyantly about in the air, and finally skurry off into
invisibility.  A gentle breeze was astir in the woods, and it set
the leaves to whispering.  The treetoads and the locusts were
trolling a chorus.  So loudly vibrant, it was!  So clamorously gay!
Some subtle intimation they surely had that summer was ephemeral and
the season waning, for the burden of their song was, Let us now be
merry.  The scarlet head of a woodpecker showed brilliantly from the
bare dead boughs of a chestnut-oak, which, with its clinging lichens
of green and gray, was boldly projected against the azure sky.  And
there, the filmy moon, most dimly visible in the afternoon sunshine,
swung like some lunar hallucination among the cirrus clouds.

"Ye 'lows ez I ain't doin' right by Birt?" the tanner suggested
presently, with more conscience in the matter than one would have
given him credit for possessing.

"I knows ye air doin' right," said Byers unexpectedly.

All at once the woodpecker was solemnly tapping--tapping.

Byers glanced up, as if to discern whence the sudden sound came, and
once more bent to his work.

"Ye b'lieves, then, ez he stole that thar grant from Nate Griggs?"
asked Perkins.

"I be SURE he done it," said Byers, unequivocally.

The tanner took his pipe from his lips.  "What ails ye ter say that,
Andy?" he exclaimed excitedly.

Andy Byers hesitated.  He mechanically passed his fingers once or
twice across the blunt, curved blade of the two-handled knife.

"Ye'll keep the secret?"

"In the sole o' my boot," said the tanner.

"Waal, I KNOWS ez Birt stole the grant.  I hev been powerful
changeful, though, in my thoughts bout'n it.  At fust I war glad
when he war suspicioned 'bout'n it, an' I war minded to go an'
inform on him an' sech, ter pay him back; 'kase I held a grudge
ag'in him, believin' ez he hed dressed out that thar blackberry bush
ez Mrs. Price's harnt.  An' then I'd remember ez his mother war a
widder-woman, an' he war nothin' but a boy, an' boys air bound ter
be gamesome an' full o' jokes wunst in a while, an' I'd feel like I
war bound ter furgive him 'bout the harnt.  An' then ag'in I got
toler'ble oneasy fur fear the Law mought hold ME 'sponsible fur
knowin' 'bout Birt's crime of stealin' the grant an' yit not tellin'
on him.  An' I'd take ter hopin' an' prayin' the boy would confess,
so ez I wouldn't hev ter tell on him.  I hev been mightily pestered
in my mind lately with sech dilly-dallyin'."

Again the sudden tapping of the woodpecker filled the pause.

"Did ye SEE him steal the grant, Andy?" asked the tanner, with bated
breath.

"Ez good ez seen him.  I seen him slyin' round, an' I HEV FUND THE
PLACE WHAR HE HEV HID IT."

And the woodpecker still was solemnly tapping, high up in the
chestnut-oak tree.



CHAPTER X.

Birt, meanwhile, was trudging along in the woods, hardly seeing
where he went, hardly caring.

He had not had even a vague premonition when the tanner told him
that he might have the rest of the day off.  He did not now want the
holiday which would once have so rejoiced him, and he said as much.
And then the tanner, making the disclosure by degrees, being truly
sorry to part with the boy, intimated that he need come back no
more.

Birt unharnessed the mule by the sense of touch and the force of
habit, for blinding tears intervened between his vision and the
rusty old buckles and worn straps of leather.  The animal seemed to
understand that something was amiss, and now and then turned his
head interrogatively.  Somehow Birt was glad to feel that he left at
least one friend in the tanyard, albeit the humblest, for he had
always treated the beast with kindness, and he was sure the mule
would miss him.

When he reached home he loitered for a time outside the fence,
trying to nerve himself to witness his mother's distress.  And at
last his tears were dried, and he went in and told her the news.

It was hard for him nowadays to understand that simple mother of
his.  She did nothing that he expected.  To be sure her cheek paled,
her eyes looked anxious for a moment, and her hands trembled so that
she carefully put down upon the table a dish which she had been
wiping.  But she said quite calmly, "Waal, sonny, I dunno but ye hed
better take a day off from work, sure enough, an' go a-huntin'.
Thar's yer rifle, an' mebbe ye'll git a shot at a deer down yander
by the lick.  The chill'n haint hed no wild meat lately, 'ceptin'
squir'ls out'n Rufe's trap."

And then he began to cry out bitterly that nobody would give him
work, and they would all starve; that the tanner believed he had
stolen the grant, and was afraid to have him about the hides.

"'Tain't no differ ez long ez 'tain't the truth," said his mother
philosophically.  "We-uns will jes' abide by the truth."

He repeated this phrase over and over as he struggled through the
tangled underbrush of the dense forest.

It was all like some terrible dream; and but for Tennessee, it would
be the truth!  How he blessed the little sister that her love for
him and his love for her had come between him and crime at that
moment of temptation.

"So powerful peart!" he muttered with glistening eyes, as he thought
of her.

The grant was gone, to be sure; but he did not take it.  They
accused him--and falsely!

It was something to be free and abroad in the woods.  He heard the
wind singing in the pines.  Their fine, penetrating aroma pervaded
the air, and the rusty needles, covering the ground, muffled his
tread.  Once he paused--was that the bleat of a fawn, away down on
the mountain's slope?  He heard no more, and he walked on, looking
about with his old alert interest.  He was refreshed, invigorated,
somehow consoled, as he went.  O wise mother! he wondered if she
foresaw this when she sent him into the woods.

He had not before noted how the season was advancing.  Here and
there, in the midst of the dark green foliage, leaves shone so
vividly yellow that it seemed as if upon them some fascinated
sunbeam had expended all its glamours.  In a dusky recess he saw the
crimson sumach flaring.  And the distant blue mountains, and the
furthest reaches of the azure sky, and the sombre depths of the
wooded valley, and the sheeny splendors of the afternoon sun, and
every incident of crag or chasm--all appeared through a soft purple
haze that possessed the air, and added an ideal embellishment to the
scene.  Down the ravine the "lick" shone with the lustre of a silver
lakelet.  He saw the old oak-tree hard by, with the historic
scaffold among its thinning leaves, and further along the slope were
visible vague bobbing figures, which he recognized as the "Griggs
gang," seeking upon the mountain side the gold which he had
discovered.

Suddenly he heard a light crackling in the brush,--a faint footfall.
It reminded him of the deer-path close at hand.  He crouched down
noiselessly amongst the low growth and lifted his rifle, his eyes
fixed on the point where the path disappeared in the bushes, and
where he would first catch a glimpse of the approaching animal.

He heard the step again.  His finger was trembling on the trigger,
when down the path leisurely walked an old gentleman attired in
black, a hammer in his hand, and a pair of gleaming spectacles
poised placidly upon the bridge of an intellectual Roman nose.  And
this queer game halted in the middle of the deer-path, all
unconscious of his deadly danger.

It was a wonder that the rifle was not discharged, for the panic-
stricken Birt had lost control of his muscles, and his convulsive
finger was still quivering on the trigger as he trembled from head
to foot.  He hardly dared to try to move the gun.  For a moment he
could not speak.  He gazed in open-mouthed amazement at the
unsuspecting old gentleman, who was also unaware of the far more
formidable open mouth of the rifle.

"Now, ain't ye lackin' fur head-stuffin'?" suddenly yelled out Birt,
from his hiding-place.

The startled old man jumped, with the most abrupt alacrity.  In
fact, despite his age and the lack of habit, he bounded as
acrobatically from the ground as the expected deer could have done.
He was, it is true, a learned man; but science has no specific for
sudden fright, and he jumped as ignorantly as if he did not know the
difficult name of any of the muscles that so alertly exercised
themselves on this occasion.

Birt rose at last to his feet and looked with a pallid face over the
underbrush.  "Now, ain't ye lackin' fur head-stuffin'," he faltered,
"a-steppin' along a deer-path ez nat'ral ez ef ye war a big fat
buck?  I kem mighty nigh shootin' ye."

The old gentleman recovered his equilibrium, mental and physical,
with marvelous rapidity.

"Ah, my young friend,"--he motioned to Birt to come nearer,--"I want
to speak to you."

Birt stared.  One might have inferred, from the tone, that the
gentleman had expected to meet him here, whereas Birt had just had
the best evidence of his senses that the encounter was a great
surprise.

The boy observed his interlocutor more carefully than he had yet
been able to do.  He remembered all at once Rufe's queer story of
meeting, down the ravine, an eccentric old man whom he was disposed
to identify as Satan.  As the stranger stood there in the deer-path,
he looked precisely as Rufe had described him, even to the baffling
glitter of his spectacles, his gray whiskers, and the curiously
shaped hammer in his hand.

Birt, although bewildered and still tremulous from the shock to his
nerves, was not so superstitious as Rufe, and he shouldered his gun,
and, pushing out from the tangled underbrush, joined the old man in
the path.

"I want," said the gentleman, "to hire a boy for a few days--weeks,
perhaps."

He smiled with two whole rows of teeth that never grew where they
stood.  Birt wished he could see the expression of the stranger's
eyes, indistinguishable behind the spectacles that glimmered in the
light.

"What do you say to fifty cents a day?" he continued briskly.

Birt's heart sank suddenly.  He had heard that Satan traded in souls
by working on the avarice of the victim.  The price suggested seemed
a great deal to Birt, for in this region there is little cash in
circulation, barter serving all the ordinary purposes of commerce.

As he hesitated, the old man eyed him quizzically.  "Afraid of work,
eh?"

"Naw, sir!" said Birt, sturdily.

Ah, if the bark-mill, and the old mule, and the tan-pit, and the
wood-pile, and the cornfield might testify!

"Fifty cents a day--eh?" said the stranger.

At the repetition of the sum, it occurred to Birt, growing more
familiar with the eccentricity of his companion, that he ought not
in sheer silliness to throw away a chance for employment.

"Kin I ask my mother?" he said dubiously.

"By all means ask your mother," replied the stranger heartily.

Birt's last fantastic doubt vanished.  Oh no! this was not Satan in
disguise.  When did the enemy ever counsel a boy to ask his mother!

Birt still stared gravely at him.  All the details of his garb,
manner, speech, even the hammer in his hand, were foreign to the
boy's experience.

Presently he ventured a question.  "Do you-uns hail from hyar-
abouts?"

The stranger was frank and communicative.  He told Birt that he was
a professor of Natural Science in a college in one of the "valley
towns," and that he was sojourning, for his health's sake, at a
little watering-place some twelve miles distant on the bench of the
mountain.  Occasionally he made an excursion into the range, which
was peculiarly interesting geologically.

"But what I wish you to do is to dig for--bones."

"BONES?" faltered Birt.

"Bones," reiterated the professor solemnly.

DID his spectacles twinkle?

Birt stood silent, vaguely wondering what his mother would think of
"bones."  Presently the professor, seeing that the boy was not
likely to ask amusing questions, explained.

He informed Birt that in the neighborhood of salt licks--"saline
quagmires" he called them--were often found the remains of animals
of an extinct species, which are of great value to science.  He gave
Birt the extremely long name of these animals, and descanted upon
such conditions of their existence as is known, much of which Birt
did not understand.  Although this fact was very apparent, it did
not in the least affect the professor's ardor in the theme.  He was
in the habit of talking of these things to boys who did not
understand, and alack! to boys who did not want to understand.

One point, however, he made very clear.  With the hope of some such
"find," he was anxious to investigate this particular lick,--about
which indeed he had heard a vague tradition of a "big bone"
discovery, such as is common to similar localities in this region,--
and for this purpose he proposed to furnish the science and the
fifty cents per diem, and earnestly desired that some one else
should furnish the muscle.

He was accustomed to think much more rapidly than the men with whom
Birt was associated, and his briskness in arranging the matter had
an incongruous suggestion of the giddiness of youth.  He said that
he would go home with Birt to fetch the spade, and while there he
could settle the terms with the boy's mother, and then they could
get to work.

He started off at a dapper gait up the deer-path, while Birt, with
his rifle on his shoulder, followed.

A sudden thought struck Birt.  He stopped short.

"Now _I_ dunno which side o' that thar lick Nate Griggs's line runs
on," he remarked.

"Never mind," said the professor, waving away objections with airy
efficiency; "I shall first secure the consent of the owner of the
land."

Birt cogitated for a moment.  "Nate Griggs ain't goin' ter gin his
cornsent ter nobody ter dig ennywhar down the ravine, ef it air
inside o' his lines," he said confidently, "'kase I--'kase he--
leastwise, 'kase gold hev been fund hyar lately, an' he hev entered
the land."

The professor stopped short in the path.

"Gold!" he ejaculated.  "Gold!"

Was there a vibration of incredulity in his voice?

Birt remembered all at once the specimens which he had picked up
that memorable evening, down the ravine, when he shot the red fox.
Here they still were in his pocket.  They showed lustrous, metallic,
yellow gleams as he placed them carefully in the old man's
outstretched hand, telling how he came by them, of his mistaken
confidence, the betrayed trust, and ending by pointing at the group
of gold-seekers, microscopic in the distance on the opposite slope.

"I hev hearn tell," he added, "ez Nate air countin' on goin'
pardners with a man in Sparty, who hev got money, to work the gold
mine."

Now and then, as he talked, he glanced up at his companion's face,
vaguely expecting to discover his opinion by its expression, but the
light still played in a baffling glitter upon his spectacles.

Birt could only follow when the professor suddenly handed back the
specimens with a peremptory "Come--come!  We must go for the spade.
But when we reach your mother's house I will test this mineral, and
you shall see for yourself what you have lost."

Mrs. Dicey's first impression upon meeting the stranger and learning
of his mission was not altogether surprise as Birt had expected.
Her chief absorption was a deep thankfulness that the floors all
preserved their freshly scoured appearance.

"Fur ef Rufe hed been playin' round hyar ter-day, same ez common,
the rubbish would have been a scandal ter the kentry," she
reflected.

In fact, all was so neat, albeit so poor, that the stranger felt as
polite as he looked, while he talked to her about employing Birt in
his researches.

Birt, however, had little disposition to listen to this.  He was
excited by the prospect of testing the mineral, and he busied
himself with great alacrity in preparing for it under the
professor's directions.  He suffered a qualm, it is true, as he
pounded the shining fragments into a coarse powder, and then he drew
out with the shovel a great glowing mass of live coals on the
hearth.

The dogs peered eagerly in at the door, having followed the stranger
with the liveliest curiosity.  Towse, bolder than the rest, entered
intrepidly with a nonchalant air and a wagging tail, for he and
Rufe, having failed to find Birt, had just returned home.  The small
boy paused on the threshold in amazed recognition of the old
gentleman who had occasioned him such a fright that day down the
ravine.

The professor gesticulated a great deal as he bent over the fire and
gave Birt directions, and, with his waving hands and the glow on his
hoary hair and beard, he looked like some fantastic sorcerer.
Somehow Rufe was glad to see the familiar countenances of Pete and
Joe, and was still more reassured to note that his mother was
quietly standing beside the table, as she stirred the batter for
bread in a wooden bowl.  Tennessee had pressed close to Birt, her
chubby hand clutching his collar as he knelt on the hearth.  He held
above the glowing coals a long fire shovel, on which the pulverized
mineral had been placed, and his eyes were very bright as he
earnestly watched it.

"If it is gold," said the old man, "a moderate heat will not affect
it."

The shovel was growing hot.  The live coals glowed beneath it.  The
breath of the fire stirred Tennessee's flaxen hair.  And Birt's
dilated eyes saw the yellow particles still glistening unchanged in
the centre of the shovel, which was beginning to redden.



CHAPTER XI.

Suddenly--was the glistening yellow mineral taking fire?  It began
to give off sulphurous fumes.  And drifting away with them were all
Birt's golden visions and Nate's ill-gotten wealth--ending in smoke!

The sulphurous odor grew stronger.  Even Towse stopped short, and
gazed at the shovel with a reprehensive sniff.

"Ker-shoo!" he sneezed.

And commenting thus, he turned abruptly and went hastily out, with a
startled look and a downcast tail.

His sneeze seemed to break the spell of silence that had fallen on
the little group.

"It be mighty nigh bodaciously changed ter cinders!" exclaimed Birt,
staring in amaze at the lustreless contents of the shovel from which
every suggestion of golden glimmer had faded.  "What do it be, ef
'tain't gold?"

"Iron pyrites," said the professor.  "'Fools' gold,' it is often
called."

He explained to Birt that in certain formations, however, gold is
associated with iron pyrites, and when the mineral is properly
roasted, this process serving to expel the sulphur, the fine
particles of gold are found held in the resulting oxide of iron.
But the variety of the mineral discovered down the ravine he said
was valueless, unless occurring in vast quantities, when it is
sometimes utilized in the production of sulphur.

"I wonder," Birt broke out suddenly, "if the assayer won't find no
gold in them samples ez Nate sent him."

The professor laughed.  "The assayer will need the 'philosopher's
stone' to find gold in any samples from this locality."

"Ye knowed then, all the time, ez this stuff warn't gold?" asked
Birt.

"All the time," rejoined the elder.

"An' Nate hev got the steepest, rockiest spot in the kentry ter pay
taxes on," resumed Birt, reflectively.  "An' he hev shelled out a
power o' money ter the surveyor, an' sech, a'ready.  I reckon he'll
be mightily outed when he finds out ez the min'ral ain't gold."

Birt stopped short in renewed anxiety.

That missing grant!  Somehow he felt sure that Nate, balked of the
great gains he had promised himself, would wreak his disappointment
wherever he might; and since the land was of so little value, he
would not continue to deny himself his revenge for fear that an
investigation into the priority of the mineral's discovery might
invalidate the entry.  Once more Birt was tortured by the terror of
arrest--he might yet suffer a prosecution from malignity, which had
hitherto been withheld from policy.  If only the mystery of the lost
grant could be solved!

The conversation of the elders had returned to the subject of the
investigations around the "lick" and the terms for Birt's services.
As so much time had been consumed with the pyrites, the professor
concluded with some vexation that they could hardly arrange all the
preliminaries and get to work this afternoon.

"I dare say we had best begin to-morrow morning," he said at last.

"Birt can't go a-diggin' no-ways, this evenin'," put in the
officious Rufe, who stood, according to his wont, listening with his
mouth and eyes wide open, "'kase ez I kem home by the tanyard Jube
Perkins hollered ter me ter tell Birt ter come thar right quick.  I
furgot it till this minit," he added, with a shade of embarrassment
that might pass for apology.

Birt felt a prophetic thrill.  This summons promised developments of
importance.  Only a few hours ago he was discharged under suspicion
of dishonesty; why this sudden recall?  He did not know whether hope
or fear was paramount.  He trembled with eager expectancy.  He
seized his hat, and strode out of the house without waiting to hear
more of the professor's plans or the details of the wages.

He had reached the fence before he discovered Tennessee close at his
heels.  He cast his troubled eyes down upon her, and met her
pleading, upturned gaze.  He was about to charge her to go back.
But then he remembered how she had followed him with blessings--how
mercy had kept pace with her steps.  He would not deny her the
simple boon she craved, and if she were troublesome and in his way,
surely he might be patient with her, since she loved him so!  He
lifted her over the fence, and then started briskly down the path,
the sturdy, light-footed little mountain girl delightedly trudging
along in the rear.

When he entered the tanyard no one was there except Jube Perkins and
Andy Byers the tanner, lounging as usual on the wood-pile, and the
workman, with scarcely less the aspect of idleness, dawdlingly
scraping a hide on the wooden horse.  Birt discerned a portent in
the unwonted solemnity of their faces, and his heart sank.

"Waal, Birt, we-uns hev been a-waitin' fur ye," said the tanner in a
subdued, grave tone that somehow reminded Birt of the bated voices
in a house of death.  "Set down hyar on the wood-pile, fur Andy an'
me hev got a word ter say ter ye."

Birt's dilated black eyes turned in dumb appeal from one to the
other as he sank down on the wood-pile.  His suspense gnawed him
like an actual grief while Jubal Perkins slowly shifted his position
and looked vaguely at Andy Byers for a suggestion, being uncertain
how to begin.

"Waal, Birt," he drawled at last, "ez yer dad is dead an' ye hev got
nobody ter see arter ye an' advise ye, Andy an' me, we-uns agreed ez
how we'd talk ter ye right plain, an' try ter git ye ter jedge o'
this hyar matter like we-uns do.  Andy an' me know more 'bout the
law, an' 'bout folks too, than ye does.  These hyar Griggs folks hev
always been misdoubted ez a fractious an' contrary-wise fambly.  Ef
enny Griggs ain't aggervatin' an' captious, it air through bein'
plumb terrified by the t'others.  They air powerful hard folks--an'
they'll land ye in the State Prison yet, I'm thinkin'.  I wonder
they hain't started at ye a'ready.  But thar's no countin' on 'em,
'ceptin' that they'll do all they kin that air ha'sh an' grindin'."

"That air a true word, Birt," said Andy Byers, speaking to the boy
for the first time in many days.  "Ef they hev thar reason fur it,
they mought hold thar hand fur a time, but fust or las' they'll hev
all out'n ye ez the law will allow 'em."

Birt listened in desperation.  All this was sharpened by the
certainty that the mineral was only valueless pyrites, and the
prescience of Nate's anger when this fact should come to his
knowledge, and prudence no longer restrain him.  His rage would vent
itself on his luckless victim for every cent, every mill, that the
discovery of the "fools' gold" had cost him.

"They'll be takin' ye away from the mountings ter jail ye an' try
ye, an' mebbe ye'll go ter the pen'tiary arter that.  An' how will
yer mother, an' brothers, an' sister, git thar vittles, an'
firewood, an' corn-crap an' clothes, an' sech--Rufe bein' the oldest
child, arter you-uns?" demanded the tanner.  "An' even when ye git
back--I hate ter tell ye this word--nobody will want ye round.
They'll be feared ye'd be forever pickin' an' stealin'."

"But we-uns will stand up fur ye, bein' ez ye air the widder's son,"
said Byers eagerly.  "We-uns will gin the Griggs tribe ter
onderstand that."

"An' mebbe the Griggses won't want ter do nuthin', ef they hain't
got no furder cause fur holdin' a grudge," put in the tanner.

"What be ye a-layin' off fur me ter do?" asked Birt wonderingly.

"Ter gin Nate's grant back ter him," they both replied in a breath.

"I hev not got it!" cried poor Birt tumultuously.  "I never stole
it!  I dunno whar it be!"

The tanner's expression changed from paternal kindliness to
contemptuous anger.

"Air ye goin' ter keep on bein' a liar, Birt, ez well ez a thief?"
he said sternly.

"I dunno whar it be," reiterated Birt desperately.

"_I_ know whar it be," said Byers.  Birt gazed at him astounded.

"Whar?" he cried eagerly.

"Whar ye hid it," returned Byers coolly.

Birt's lips moved with difficulty as he huskily ejaculated "I never
hid it--I never!"

"Ye needn't deny it.  I ez good ez seen ye hide it."

Birt looked dazed for a moment.  Then the blood rushed to his face
and as suddenly receded, leaving it pale and rigid.  He was cold and
trembling.  He could not speak.

The tanner scrutinized him narrowly.  Then he said, "Tell him 'bout
it, Andy.  Tell him jes' ez ye tole me.  An' mebbe he'll hev sense
enough ter gin it up when he sees he air fairly caught."

"Waal," said Byers, leaning back against the wall of the smoke-
house, and holding the knife idly poised in his hand, "I kem down
ter the tanyard betimes that mornin' arter the storm.  Both ye an'
Birt war late.  I noticed Nate Griggs's coat hangin' thar in the
shed, with a paper stickin' out'n the pocket, ez I started inter the
smoke-house ter tend ter the fire.  I reckon I mus' hev made
consider'ble racket in thar, 'kase I never hearn nuthin' till I sot
down afore the fire on a log o' wood, an' lit my pipe.  All of a
suddenty thar kem a step outside, toler'ble light on the tan.  I
jes' 'lowed 't war ye or Birt.  But I happened ter look up, an' thar
I see a couple o' big black eyes peepin' through that thar crack in
the wall."

He turned and pointed out a crevice where the "daubin'" had fallen
from the "chinkin'" between the logs.

"Ye can see," he resumed, "ez this hyar crack air jes' the height o'
Birt.  Waal, them eyes lookin' in so onexpected didn't 'sturb me
none.  I hev knowed the Dicey eye fur thirty year, an' thar ain't
none like 'em nowhar round the mountings.  But I 'lowed 't war
toler'ble sassy in Birt ter stand thar peerin' at me through the
chinkin'.  I never let on, though, ez I viewed him.  An' then, them
eyes jes' set up sech a outdacious winkin' an' wallin', an'
squinchin', ez I knowed he war makin' faces at me.  So I jes' riz
up--an' the eyes slipped away from thar in a hurry.  I war aimin'
ter larrup Birt fur his sass, but I stopped ter hang up a skin ez I
hed knocked down.  It never tuk me long, much, but when I went out,
thar warn't nobody ter be seen in the tanyard."

He paused to place one foot upon the wooden horse, and he leaned
forward with a reflective expression, his elbow on his knee, and his
hand holding his bearded chin.

The afternoon was waning.  The scarlet sun in magnified splendor was
ablaze low down in the saffron west.  The world seemed languorously
afloat in the deep, serene flood of light.  Shadows were lengthening
slowly.  The clangor of a cow-bell vibrated in the distance.

The drone of Andy Byers's voice overbore it as he recommenced.

"Waal, I was sorter conflusticated, an' I looked round powerful
sharp ter see whar Birt hed disappeared to.  I happened ter cut my
eye round at that thar pit ez he hed finished layin' the tan in, an'
kivered with boards, an' weighted with rocks that day ez ye an' me
hed ter go an' attend on old Mrs. Price.  Ye know we counted ez that
thar pit wouldn't be opened ag'in fur a right smart time?"

The tanner nodded assent.

"Waal, I noticed ez the aidge o' one o' them boards war sot sorter
catawampus, an' I 'lowed ez 't war the wind ez hed 'sturbed it.  Ez
I stooped down ter move it back in its place, I seen su'thin' white
under it.  So I lifted the board, an' thar I see, lyin' on the tan
a-top o' the pit, a stiff white paper.  I looked round toward the
shed, an' thar hung the coat yit--with nuthin' in the pocket.  I
didn't know edzactly what ter make of it, an' I jes' shunted the
plank back over the paper in the pit like I fund it, an' waited ter
see what mought happen.  An' all the time ez that thar racket war
goin' on bout'n the grant, I knowed powerful well whar 't war, an'
who stole it."

Birt looked from one to the other of the two men.  Both evidently
believed every syllable of this story.  It was so natural, so
credible, that he had a curious sense of inclining toward it, too.
Had he indeed, in some aberration, taken the grant?  Was it some
tricksy spirit in his likeness that had peered through the chinking
at Andy Byers?

He could find no words to contend further.  He sat silent, numb,
dumfounded.

"Birt," said the tanner coaxingly, "thar ain't no use in denyin' it
enny mo'.  Let's go an' git that grant, an' take it ter Nate an'
tell the truth."

The words roused Birt.  He clutched at the idea of getting
possession of the paper that had so mysteriously disappeared and
baffled and eluded him.  He could at least return it.  And even if
this should fail to secure him lenient treatment, he would feel that
he had done right.  He rose suddenly in feverish anxiety.

Andy Byers and Perkins, exchanging a wink of congratulation,
followed him to the pit.

"It air under this hyar board," said Byers, moving one of the heavy
stones, and lifting a broad plank.

Perkins pressed forward with eager curiosity, never having seen this
famous grant.

The ground bark on the surface was pretty dry, the layer being ten
or fifteen inches thick, and the tanning infusion had not yet risen
through it.

Byers stared with a frown at the tan, and lifted another board.
Nothing appeared beneath it on the smooth surface of the bark.

In sudden alarm they took away the boards, one after another, till
all were removed, and the whole surface of the pit was exposed.

Then they looked at each other, bewildered.  For once more the grant
was gone.



CHAPTER XII.

Jubal Perkins broke the silence.

"Andy Byers," he exclaimed wrathfully, "what sort 'n tale is this ez
ye air tryin' ter fool me with?"

Byers, perturbed and indignant, was instantly ready to accuse Birt.

"Ye hev been hyar an' got the grant an' sneaked it off agin, hev
ye!" he cried, scowling at the boy.

Then he turned to the tanner.  "I hope I may drap dead, Jube," he
said earnestly, "ef that grant warn't right hyar"--he pointed at the
spot--"las' night whenst I lef' the tanyard.  I always looked late
every evenin' ter be sure it hedn't been teched, thinkin' I'd make
up my mind in the night whether I'd tell on Birt, or no.  But I
never could git plumb sati'fied what to do."

His tone carried conviction.  The tanner looked at Birt with
disappointment in every line of his face.  There was severity, too,
in his expression.  He was beginning to admit the fitness of harsh
punishment in this case.

"Ye don't wuth all this gabblin' an' jawin' over ye, ye miser'ble
leetle critter," he said.  "An' I ain't goin' ter waste another
breath on ye."

Birt stood vacantly staring at the tan.  All the energy of the truth
was nullified by the futility of protestation.

The two men exchanged a glance of vague comment upon his silence,
and then they too looked idly down at the pit.

Tennessee abruptly caught Birt's listless hand as it hung at his
side, for Towse had suddenly entered the tanyard, and prancing up to
her in joyous recognition, was trying to lick her face.

"G'way, Towse," she drawled gutturally.  She struck vaguely at him
with her chubby little fist, which he waggishly took between his
teeth in a gingerly gentle grip.

"Stand back thar, Tennessee," Birt murmured mechanically.

As usual, Towse was the precursor of Rufe, who presently dawdled out
from the underbrush.  He quickened his steps upon observing the
intent attitude of the party, and as he came up he demanded
vivaciously, "What ails that thar pit o' yourn, Mister Perkins?--
thought ye said 't warn't goin' ter be opened ag'in fore-shortly."

For a moment the tanner made no reply.  Then he drawled absently,
"Nuthin' ails the pit, Rufe--nuthin'."

Rufe sat down on the edge of it, and gazed speculatively at it.
Presently he began anew, unabashed by the silence of the grave and
contemplative group.

"This hyar tan hev got sorter moist atop now; I wonder ef that thar
grant o' Nate's got spi'led ennywise with the damp."

Birt winced.  It had been a certain mitigation of his trouble that,
thanks to his mother's caution, the children at home knew nothing of
the disgrace that had fallen upon him, and that there, at least, the
atmosphere was untainted with suspicion.

The next moment he was impressed by the singularity of Rufe's
mention of the missing grant and its place of concealment.

"Look-a-hyar, Rufe," he exclaimed, excitedly; "how d'ye know
ennything 'bout Nate's grant an' whar 't war hid?"

Rufe glanced up scornfully, insulted in some occult manner by the
question.

"How did I know, Birt Dicey?  How d'ye know yerse'f?" he retorted.
"I knows a heap, ginerally."

Perkins, catching the drift of Birt's intention, came to the rescue.

"Say, bub, how d'ye know the grant war ever put hyar?"

"Kase," responded Rufe, more amicably, "I seen it put hyar--right
yander."

He indicated the spot where the paper lay, according to Byers, when
it was discovered.

Birt could hardly breathe.  His anxieties, his hopes, his fears,
seemed a pursuing pack before which he was almost spent.  He panted
like a hunted creature.  Tennessee was swinging herself to and fro,
holding by his hand.  Sometimes she caught at Towse's unlovely ear,
as he sat close by with his tongue lolled out and an attentive air,
as if he were assisting at the discussion.

"Who put it thar, bub?" demanded Perkins.

It would not have surprised Birt, so perverse had been the course of
events, if Rufe had accused him on the spot.

"Pig-wigs Griggs," replied Rufe, unexpectedly.

A glance of intelligence passed between the men.

"Tell 'bout it, Rufe," said the tanner, suppressing all appearance
of excitement.

"Ye ain't goin' ter do nuthin' ter Pig-wigs fur foolin' with yer
pit, ef I tell ye?" asked Rufe, quickly.

"Naw, bub, naw.  Which Griggs do ye call 'Pig-wigs?'"

"Why--PIG-WIGS," Rufe reiterated obviously.

Then he explained.  "He air Nate's nevy.  He air Nate's oldest
brother's biggest boy,--though he ain't sizable much.  He air 'bout
haffen ez big ez me--ef that," he added reflectively, thinking that
even thus divided he had represented Pig-wigs as more massive than
the facts justified.

"Ye see," he continued, "one day when his uncle Tim war over hyar
ter the tanyard, I gin him one o' my game deedies; an' ez soon ez he
got home he showed 'em all that thar deedie--powerful, spryest
poultry ye ever see!"

Rufe smiled ecstatically as only a chicken fancier can.

"An' Pig-wigs war plumb DE-stracted fur a deedie too.  An' he run
all the way over hyar ter git me ter gin him one.  But the deedies
hed all gone ter bed, an' the old hen war hoverin' of 'em, an' I
didn't want ter 'sturb 'em," said Rufe considerately.  "So I tole
Pig-wigs ter meet me at the tanyard early, an' I'd fetch him one.
An' ez his granny war goin' visitin' her merried daughter, she let
him ride behind her on thar sorrel mare ez fur ez the tanyard.  So
he got hyar 'fore I did.  An' I kem an' gin him the deedie."

Rufe paused abruptly, as if, having narrated this important
transaction, he had exhausted the interest of the subject.

Byers was about to speak, but the tanner with a gesture repressed
him.

"Ye hain't tole 'bout the pit an' the grant yit, bubby," he reminded
the small boy.

Byers's display of impatience was not lost upon Rufe, and it added
to the general acrimony of their relations.

"Waal," the small boy began alertly, "we-uns hed the deedie behind
the smoke-house thar, an' I seen HIM"--Rufe pointed at Byers with
disfavor--"a-comin' powerful slow inter the tanyard, an' I whispered
ter Pig-wigs Griggs ter be quiet, an' not let HIM know ez we-uns war
thar, 'kase he war always a-jawin' at me, 'thout the tanner war by
ter keep him off'n me.  So we-uns bided thar till HE went inter the
smoke-house.  An' then ez we-uns kem by the shed, Pig-wigs seen his
uncle Nate's coat hangin' on a peg thar, 'kase that thar triflin'
Tim hed furgot, an' lef' it thar when he went ter see the deedies.
An' Pig-wigs Griggs, he 'lowed he knowed the coat war his uncle
Nate's by the favior of it, an' he reckoned the paper stickin' out'n
the pocket war the grant he hed hearn Nate talkin' 'bout.  An' I
whispered ter him ez he hed better ondertake ter tote it home ter
Nate.  An' Pig-wigs said he couldn't tote the coat, bein' so
lumbered up with the deedie.  But he would tote the grant in one
hand an' the deedie in t'other.  He couldn't put the deedie in one
o' his pockets, 'kase his mother sews 'em all up, bein' ez he WOULD
kerry sech a passel o' heavy truck in 'em,--rocks an' sech, reg'lar
bowlders," added Rufe, with a casual remembrance of the museum in
his own pockets.  "So Pig-wigs's mother sewed 'em all up, 'kase she
said they war tore out all the time, an' she seen no sense in a boy
hevin' a lot o' slits in his clothes ter let in the air slanchwise
on him.  An' Pig-wigs 'lowed he'd tote the grant ef I would git it
fur him.  An' I did."

"How did you-uns reach up ter that thar peg?" demanded Byers,
pointing to the peg on which the coat had hung, far beyond Rufe's
reach.

"Clumb up on the wooden horse," said Rufe promptly.  "I peeked
through the chinkin' an' seen ye thar a-smokin' yer pipe over the
fire."

Rufe winked audaciously, suddenly convincing Byers as to the
possessor of the big black eyes, which he had recognized as
characteristic of the Dicey family, when they had peered through the
chinking.

"Waal, how did the grant git inter the pit, Rufe, an' what hev
become of it?" asked Byers, overlooking these personalities, for he
felt a certain anxiety in the matter, being the last person known to
have seen the grant, which, by reason of his delay and indecision,
had again been spirited away.

"Pig-wigs put it thar, I tell ye," reiterated Rufe.  "Ye see, I hed
got outside o' the gate, an' Pig-wigs war a good ways behind,
walkin' toler'ble slow, bein' ez he hed ter kerry the grant in one
hand an' the deedie in t'other.  An' thar I see a-cropin' along on
the ground a young rabbit--reg'lar baby rabbit.  An' I motioned ter
Pig-wigs ter come quick--I hed fund suthin'.  An' ez Pig-wigs
couldn't put the deedie down, he laid the grant on top o' the boards
ez kivered the pit.  But the wind war brief, an' kem mighty nigh
blowin' that grant away.  So Pig-wigs jes' stuck it down 'twixt two
planks, an' kem ter holp me ketch the rabbit.  But Pig-wigs warn't
no 'count ter holp.  An' the rabbit got away.  An' whilst Pig-wigs
war foolin' round, he drapped his deedie, an' stepped on it--tromped
the life out'n it."  Rufe's expression was of funereal gravity.
"An' then he follered me every foot o' the way home, beggin' an'
beggin' me ter gin him another.  But I wouldn't.  I won't gin no
more o' my deedies ter be tromped on, all round the mounting."

Rufe evidently felt that the line must be drawn somewhere.

"An' what hev gone with that thar grant?  'T war hyar yestiddy."

"I dunno," responded Rufe, carelessly.  "Mebbe Pig-wigs reminded
hisself 'bout'n it arter awhile, an' kem an' got it."

This proved to be the case.  For Andy Byers concerned himself enough
in the matter to ride the old mule over to Nate's home, to push the
inquiries.  Nate was just emerging from the door.  The claybank
mare, saddled and bridled, stood in front of the cabin.  He was
evidently about to mount.

"Look-a-hyar, ye scamp!" Byers saluted him gruffly, "whyn't ye let
we-uns know ez ye hed got back that thar grant o' yourn, ez hev sot
the whole mounting catawampus?  Pig-wigs hearn ye talkin' 'bout it
at las', and tole ye ez he hed it, I s'pose?"

Nate affected to examine the saddle-girth.  He looked furtively over
the mare's shoulder at Andy Byers.  He could not guess how much of
the facts had been developed.  In sheer perversity he was tempted to
deny that he had the grant.  But Byers was a heavy man of scant
patience, and he wore a surly air that boded ill to a trifler.

Nate nodded admission.

"Pig-wigs fotched it home, eh?" demanded Byers, leaning downward.

Once more Nate lifted his long, thin questioning face.  His craft
had no encouragement.

"Ef ye be minded to call him 'Pig-wigs'--his right name air
Benjymen--'t war him ez fotched it home."

"Now ye air a mighty cantankerous, quar'lsome, aggervatin' critter!"
Byers broke out irritably.  "Ain't ye 'shamed o' this hyar hurrah ye
hev kicked up fur nuthin'? accusin' o' Birt wrongful, an' sech?"

"Naw; I ain't 'shamed o' nuthin'!" said Nate hardily, springing into
the saddle.  "I'm a-ridin' ter the SettleMINT ter git word from the
assayer 'bout'n the gold ez I hev fund.  An' when I rides back I'll
be wuth more'n enny man in the mountings or Sparty either!"

And he gave the mare the whip, and left Andy Byers, with his mouth
full of rebukes, sitting motionless on the dozing old mule.

The mare came back from the Settlement late that night under lash
and spur, at a speed she had never before made.  Day was hardly
astir when Nate Griggs, wild-eyed and haggard, appeared at the
tanyard in search of Birt.  He was loud with reproaches, for the
assayer had pronounced the "gold" only worthless iron pyrites.  He
had received, too, a jeering letter from his proposed partner in
Sparta, who had found sport in playing on his consequential
ignorance and fancied sharpness.  And now Nate declared that Birt,
also, had known that the mineral was valueless, and had from the
first befooled him.  In some way he would compel Birt to refund all
the money that had been expended.  How piteous was Nate as he stood
and checked off, on his trembling fingers, the surveyor's fee, the
entry-taker's fee, the register's fee, the secretary of State's fee,
the assayer's fee--Oh, ruin, ruin!  And what had he to show for it!
a tract of crags and chasms and precipitous gravelly slopes and
gullies worth not a mill an acre!  And this was all--for the office
of laughing-stock has no emoluments.  Where was Birt?  He would hold
Birt to account.

Andy Byers, listening, thought how well it was for Birt that Nate no
longer had the loss of the grant as a grievance.

Perkins mysteriously beckoned Nate aside.  "Nate," he said in a low
voice, "Birt air powerful mad 'bout that thar accusin' him o'
stealin' the grant, when 't war some o' yer own folks, 'Pig-wigs,'
ez hed it all the time.  I seen him goin' 'long towards yer house a
leetle while ago.  I reckon he air lookin' fur you.  He hed that big
cowhide, ez I gin him t'other day, in one hand.  Ye jes' take the
road home, an' ye'll ketch up with him sure."

Nate's wits were in disastrous eclipse.  Could he deduce nothing
from the tanner's grin?  He spent the day at the Settlement without
ostensible reason, and only at nightfall did he return home, and by
a devious route, very different from that indicated by Jubal
Perkins.

Inquiry developed the fact that the boundaries of Nate's land did
not include the salt lick, and his talents as an obstructer were not
called into play.  The professor was free to dig as he chose for the
antique bones he sought, and many a long day did he and Birt spend
in this sequestered spot, with the great crags towering above and
the darkling vistas of the ravine on either hand.  There was a long
stretch of sunny weather, and somehow that shifting purple haze
accented all its languorous lustres.  It seemed a vague sort of
poetry a-loose in the air, and color had license.  The law which
decreed that a leaf should be green was a dead letter.  How
gallantly red and yellow they flared; and others, how tenderly pink,
and gray, and purplish of hue!  What poly-tinted fancies underfoot
in the moss!  Strange visitants came from the north.  Flocks of
birds, southward bound, skimmed these alien skies.  Sometimes they
alighted on the tree-tops or along the banks of the torrent,
chattering in great excitement, commenting mightily on the country.

Birt had never been so light-hearted as during these days.  The
cessation of anxiety was itself a sort of happiness.  The long, hard
ordeal to which the truth had subjected him had ended triumphantly.

"Mighty onexpected things happen in this worl'," he said,
reflectively.  "It 'pears powerful cur'ous to me, arter all ez hev
come an' gone, ez _I_ ain't no loser by that thar gold mine down the
ravine."

He himself was surprised that he did not rejoice in Nate's
mortification and defeat.  But somehow he had struck a moral
equilibrium; in mastering his anger and thirst for revenge, he had
gained a stronger control of all the more unworthy impulses of his
nature.

Meantime there was woe at the tanyard.  Jube Perkins had been
anxious to have Birt resume his old place on the old terms.  The
professor, however, would not release the boy from his engagement.
It seemed that this man of science could deduce subtle distinctions
of character in the mere wielding of a spade.  He had never seen, he
said, any one dig so conscientiously and so intelligently as Birt.
The tanner suddenly found that conscience might prove a factor even
in so simple a matter as driving the old mule around the bark-mill.
The boy who had taken Birt's place was a sullen, intractable fellow,
and brutal.  When he yelled and swore and plied the lash, the old
mule would occasionally back his ears.  The climax came one day when
the rash boy kicked the animal.  Now this reminded the mild-mannered
old mule of his own youthful prowess as a kicker.  He revived his
reputation.  He seemed to stand on his fore-legs and his muzzle,
while his hind-legs played havoc behind him.  The terrified boy
dared not come near him.  The bark-mill itself was endangered.  Jube
Perkins had not done so much work for a twelvemonth as in his
efforts to keep the boy, the mule, and the bark-mill going together.

There were no "finds" down by the lick to rejoice the professor, and
he went away at last boneless, except in so far as nature had
provided him.  He left Birt amply rewarded for his labor.  So
independent did Mrs. Dicey feel with this sum of money in reserve,
that she would not agree that Birt should work on the old terms with
the tanner.  Birt was dismayed by this temerity.  Once more,
however, he recognized her acumen, for Jubal Perkins, although he
left the house in a huff, came back again and promised good wages.
Ignorant and simple as she was, her keen instinct for her son's best
interest, his true welfare, endowed her words with wisdom.
Thenceforth he esteemed no friend, no ally, equal to his mother.

It delighted him to witness her triumph in the proof of his
innocence, and indeed she did not in this matter bear herself with
meekness.  It made him feel so prosperous to note her relapse into
her old caustic habit of speech.  Ah, if he were hurt or sore beset,
every word would be tenderness.

Birt shortly compassed a much desired object.  The mule's revival of
his ancient glories as a "turrible kicker" had injured his market
value, and Birt's earnings enabled him to purchase the animal at a
low price.  The mule lived to a great age, always with his master as
"mild-mannered" as a lamb.

For some time Birt saw nothing of Nate, but one day the quondam
friends met face to face on a narrow, precipitous path on the
mountain side.  Abject fear was expressed in Nate's sharp features,
for escape was impossible.

There was no need of either fear or flight.

"How air ye, I'on Pyrite!" cried Birt cheerfully.

The martyr's countenance changed.

"Ye never done me right 'bout that thar mine, Birt Dicey," Nate said
reproachfully.  "Ye mus' hev knowed from the fust ez them thar rocks
war good fur nuthin'."

"Ye air the deceivinest sandy-headed Pyrite that ever war on the top
o' this mounting, an' ye knows it," Birt retorted in high good
humor; "an' ef it war wuth my while I'd gin ye a old-fashion
larrupin' jes' ter pay ye fur the trick ez ye played on me.  But I
ain't keerin' fur that, now.  Stan' back thar, Tennessee!"

Since then, Tennessee, always preserving the influence she wielded
that memorable night, has grown to be a woman--never pretty, but, as
her brother still stoutly avers, "powerful peart."




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